IT WAS character that won it in the end for Inverness. Character, and composure, and perhaps also a justified sense of grievance at being harshly reduced to nine men while still a goal behind.
They were less than a minute away from being denied a first senior cup final, and Josh Meekings had just been shown a straight red card, joining Gary Warren, who had been sent off for a second bookable offence midway through the second half. Then up popped substitute Nick Ross, the man with the freshest legs on a strength-sapping pitch, to grab an equaliser.
Hearts, despite that blow to their morale, should still have been strong enough to win the game in extra time. Instead, they seemed to lose self-belief the longer the additional half-hour went on, failing to stretch the play, and reduced to chipping hopeful balls into the box.
By the time extra time was over, there was no doubting who had the psychological advantage. It slipped away from Caley Thistle momentarily when Andrew Shinnie’s opening penalty was saved by Jamie MacDonald, but Dean Brill stopped Paul McCallum’s spot-kick and then Billy McKay put his team ahead.
Moments later Greg Tansey made it 3-1 after Hearts goalscorer Jamie Hamill had had his spot-kick saved, and although Scott Robinson scored to keep his team in the contest, Ross Draper then sent Inverness through to the 16 March League Cup final against Aberdeen.
Having played their best football of the season in their previous two league games, Hearts had high hopes going into yesterday’s semi-final. Manager Gary Locke kept faith with the team who had beaten Ross County and St Mirren, meaning Ryan Stevenson, who had been suspended for both, began this one on the bench. So too did loan signing McCallum.
Having conceded a goal in the opening 30 seconds against St Mirren in midweek, Hearts should have been alert straight from kick-off. Instead, an early error again almost proved costly, as with two minutes played McKay seized on a short pass-back by Danny Wilson. McKay squared for Marley Watkins, but the midfielder could only slide in and chip over the bar.
Caley Thistle continued to look the better side in the opening stages, and with five minutes gone Robinson was booked for a late tackle on McKay after the striker had tracked back towards the halfway line. Hearts came more into the game towards the middle of the first half, but five minutes before half-time Caley Thistle should have gone ahead. An intelligent chip by Draper and an equally insightful run by McKay put the latter through on goal, but MacDonald pulled off an excellent save from the striker’s close-range chip.
Bookings for Warren and Watkins were a sign of growing tetchiness. Both teams needed the break to revise their strategies. Locke’s response was to bring on Stevenson for David Smith, with Callum Paterson taking up Smith’s wide-right stance to allow the substitute to partner Dale Carrick.
Hughes made no changes in personnel for the start of the second half, but his team’s increased urgency was apparent. They threatened to make the breakthrough from the restart, and with 53 minutes played took a deserved lead.
Several promising moves by Inverness had broken down when Hearts players got to a loose ball first, but on this occasion play ran kindly for Tansey. Running on to the ball some 25 yards out, Tansey scored with an unstoppable shot. MacDonald ran straight out to the referee to claim there had been a hand-ball in the build-up, and was booked for his trouble.
It was all Hearts for a period after that, as they first equalised then quickly took the lead. With 25 minutes to play, Nicholson was fouled on the edge of the box and Warren was dismissed for a second bookable offence. At the free kick KevinMcHattie looked set to try a left-foot drive, but the ball was laid off to Hamill, whose low shot took a deflection on its way just inside the left post.
Three minutes later, another free-kick produced another goal for Hamill. This time he took it himself, chipping direct into the top right corner, and suddenly Hearts were on top.
It got worse for Caley Thistle going into the five minutes of stoppage time as Meekings was harshly shown a straight red for a trip on Robinson. But then, despite by that time being two men down, they somehow got the better of a goalmouth scramble. Substitute Ross had one attempt blocked, then netted on the turn from a wide angle to send the match into extra time.
Despite the blow to their morale of that late equaliser, Hearts should still have finished the job in the additional 30 minutes. They dominated extra time, but they played too deliberately and their crossing was ineffectual.
Ross and McKay looked by far the most dangerous attackers on the pitch, and in one scramble during the second period both had shots blocked in quick succession. That incident added urgency to Hearts’ play, but in the eight minutes that remained they were able to force only one real opening – a cross to the back post that McCallum headed over.
Hearts had beaten the same opponents on penalties at the same stage last year, but at no stage of the shoot-out did they look like reaching the final again.
Inverness: Shinnie (miss); McKay (goal); Ross (goal); Tansey (goal); Draper (goal).
Hearts: McCallum (miss); Carrick (goal); Hamill (miss); Robinson (goal).
Teams, bookings, subs
Inverness: Brill; Raven (Ross, 87), Shinnie, Vincent (Tremarco, 90), Warren, Meekings, Watkins, Tansey, McKay, Draper, Doran (Devine, 69).
Subs not used: Esson, Williams.
Goals: G Tansey 54; N Ross 90.
Booked: G Shinnie, M Watkins, G Warren.
Sent off: G Warren, J Meekings.
Hearts: MacDonald, McKay, McHattie, Hamill, McGowan (McCallum, 64), Wilson, Smith (Stevenson, 45), Robinson, Carrick, Paterson, Nicholson (Tapping, 85).
Subs not used: Ridgers, McGhee.
Goals: J Hamill 68, 70.
Booked: J MacDonald, B McKay, S Robinson, C Paterson.
Referee: J Beaton