For two hours of a crash-bang-wallop cup-tie, John Hughes looked perfectly comfortable in his surroundings. He was at Easter Road, Russell Latapy was at his side, and Hearts were the opposition.
But if you were hoping for a glimpse of the jovial, joke-happy and ever so slightly buffoonish Yogi who used to inhabit the place, you would have been disappointed.
Only once did he “go radge”, as the EH7 vernacular with which he’s so familiar would have it, when his striker Billy McKay was clattered right in front of him. The rest of the time he was a picture of composure, hands in pockets, pacing about, taking it all in – though later on doubtless wondering how the hell Inverness Caley Thistle were going to salvage this semi with only nine men. It’s true that deep into extra-time he turned to the stand behind his dugout and let rip one of those comic-strip grins, the kind to greet the arrival of a cow pie or the execution of an itching power-based prank – but that was an understandable reaction to the sheer madness of this game. First ICT were in complete charge and then they weren’t. Then Hearts had total control and suddenly they didn’t.
During the penalty shoot-out, however, Hughes deserted his post. With each kick he seemed to be edging further and further down the tunnel. Then he wasn’t even watching. Any moment, you thought, he was going to run right out of the stadium, run all the way back to that Leith pub he used to own, in the hope it would be able to serve him something cold, amber-hued and soothing.
“I was watching and not watching and watching,” he said in a quiet voice, before revealing the secret of his penalty-kick philosophy: pick a spot and stick to it. “It’s something I’ve always done. I’ll say it to my regular penalty-taker, even my goalkeeper: ‘Get yourself half a dozen balls and keep battering them. No, you’re not dinking or chipping or changing your mind. Don’t waver.’ We’re just thankful we came out on top.”
If that sounds like Hughes taking credit, he’s not. He and Latapy are due plenty for the re-jigging of his reduced team to get them through that extra half-hour, with Ross Draper’s heroics as an emergency centre-back being matched by McKay’s ceaseless running and clever hold-up play as a (very) lone gun. But when Yogi was told he’d made history by getting ICT to their first national final, he shook his head. “It’s nothing to do with me; it’s these boys. They are a wonderful bunch and I’m absolutely delighted for them.”
Much, much earlier, the portents for such a pulsating cup-tie had not been great. On the walk to the stadium, it was too early for singing, too early for joshful anticipation, and on a cold, bright morning there was every chance of bumping into good, God-bothering folk heading to church. It wasn’t too early for a Greggs breakfast, but it was definitely premature for such an important fixture, especially for the Highland contingent. Four of them looking disorientated outside a massage parlour (also closed) revealed their day had begun even earlier, having set off at 6am from Forres just to get to Inversnecky.
On the pitch a sign held aloft by shivering operatives told them they were at the right place. “The Scottish League Cup,” it said with all the drama of “Golf Sale”. In Hibs’ Famous Five Stand, ICT fans were hoping for a famous fourth outcome, having lost three previous semis. They could only fill the bottom tier but at least their lusty drummer had made it down. The rest of the ground was all-Hearts and Jambos took full advantage of being able to sit in Hibee seats for the day. The club song, and especially the line “YOU can’t go wrong”, sounded different, doomier, in these surroundings, suggesting that all football grounds aren’t the same and offering hope for general well-being.
There’s hope for the League Cup when it produces ties like this. Screaming goals, fortunes rising and crashing, absolute commitment. And amid the flurry of red and yellow cards there were sweet moments, including Hughes with his arm round Billy Brown at 90 minutes, the latter being credited before the game along with Jim Jefferies for having taught Yogi “how to be a man”. At 105 minutes, during the extra-time change-around, Draper offered his water to Jamie Hamill while the Hearts man complained to the referee. Then during the shootout as fortunes continued to sway, there were man-hugs or goalie-hugs between Jamie MacDonald and Dean Brill.
The talk beforehand had been about ghosts: would Inverness bump into some from last year’s semi, same ground, same opposition, when they’d been expected to win but had lost on penalties? McKay, whose dead-eye had deserted him 12 months ago, didn’t score yesterday but typified the spirit which inspired a trademark Yogi soliloquy. This spoke of honest toil. It referenced the groundsman who the next time you see him is painting something. And it confirmed that while ICT were “not the most glamorous club in the world, or in Scotland”, being their manager was an “inspiration”.
Hearts’ new recruit, Paul McCallum, gave a pretty good impression of a ghost until just about his first touch, conceding a throw-in on halfway, was greeted by a huge Jambo cheer that was definitely part-irony. By then Hearts were leading. When he made his entry a few minutes before they had been losing. Just his presence seemed to lift the Edinburgh side, playing in Edinburgh, and the semi seemed to have turned decisively.
The post-Terry Butcher slump was simply forgotten as he celebrated with the fans, though the moment wasn’t milked. Then, just before disappearing down the tunnel for real, he spotted a familiar face in the crowd, and the fast-scooping lager gesture ultimately proved irresistible.