GARY Locke needed no-one to tell him that Hearts had thrown away a glorious opportunity to get to the League Cup final yesterday. He had seen his team concede a goal late into stoppage time before being knocked out on penalties by Inverness, and he knew there was no point in looking for excuses or blaming any other factor.
The manager was sparing in his criticism of his young side, singling nobody out for blame and insisting the failure had been a collective one. There has been the odd occasion in this most trying of seasons for Hearts when he has blamed his players for lack of application, but this time his reaction was deep disappointment rather than anger.
“It’s very difficult to take, but we’ve no-one else to blame apart from ourselves,” Locke said after his team had lost the shoot-out to nine-man Caley Thistle. “We’re in a good position, a minute to go, we get a corner – and we stupidly give the ball away. They go up the pitch and get an equaliser. So it’s a sore one to take.
“In extra time we didn’t move the ball quickly enough. We tried to force things and were caught running with the ball instead of moving it quicker, then when we did get into good areas our final ball let us down. I think you’ve got to give Inverness credit – they defended brilliantly in extra time. But we certainly made it easier for them because we didn’t move the ball quick enough, and the disappointing thing is we didn’t create enough chances in extra time.
“I thought we played well in the game. We showed a lot of character to come back from a goal down and at 2-1 up we should have seen the game out. Jamie Hamill had a great game, and it’s just one of those things in the penalty shoot-out. He’s not missed a penalty all season and he misses one there. But I thought his overall performance was very good.”
Locke has had to deal with adversity all the way through this season, and has tried to keep his team’s morale up even as relegation has become an apparently inescapable fate. However, he believes that the loss of this match will be the hardest blow from which to recover.
“Definitely. The opportunity was there for us and we can only blame ourselves. We were in a fantastic position, and we’ve thrown it away.”
Goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald saved Inverness’s first penalty, but could do nothing about the four that followed as Hearts lost the shoot-out 4-2. “It’s always bad to lose a penalty shoot-out, but I think even harder when you concede a 94th-minute equaliser against a team with nine men,” he said.
“Everybody’s devastated down there. It was a great opportunity for us to get to a cup final again, and unfortunately it’s passed us by.
“We knew [in extra time] the key was to remain patient. I think we started okay, then after that the crowd got on our back a little bit, and we panicked a little bit and started making silly mistakes.
“To be honest, Inverness probably had a few more chances with nine men than they did with 11. We should have had the game won before penalties.”
MacDonald was booked after Caley Thistle’s opening goal for rushing out and protesting to referee John Beaton. He explained he had been sure there was a hand-ball just before Greg Tansey had scored.
“It’s quite clear the ball was going to run through, and it’s hit the boy’s hand and landed at his feet and he hit a great strike.
“The ref said it was ball to hand, but at the end of the day it’s led to a goal. It’s hand-ball for me, considering the same boy gave a penalty against us earlier in the season for [the ball] hitting somebody in the face.”