THEIR paths first crossed so long ago but, this season, all those roads have led to Hampden. It may have taken Ian Black longer than others but this afternoon he will get his opportunity to shine.
Already this season two of his boyhood peers have tussled on the hallowed turf. In the League Cup final it was his former Blackburn buddy Gary Harkins who enjoyed success, his former Hibs youth team cohort Scott Brown missing out on the chance to lift the trophy.
Today, when Hearts take on Celtic in the weekend’s second Scottish Cup semi-final, Black hopes to subject Brown to a double helping of cup disappointment and take a step closer to emulating Harkins’ Hampden joy. And he believes he is capable of doing that, provided none of his competitors try to cash in on his reputation and con the referee.
“I played with Scott Brown at Hibs when I was younger,” says the Tynecastle midfielder. “He signed a professional contract there while I opted to go down south. He kicked on at Hibs and I left Blackburn to return to Scotland after my spell in England. So I know Scott from those early days and, believe it or not, he wasn’t as he is now. He was much quieter. Really quiet, in fact. But he’s come on leaps and bounds and is now captain of Celtic.
“He’s a good lad, and obviously a very good player. But it will be good to try and turn him over on Sunday. I’ve got a lot of praise for him, he’s done well. He was written off at the start because of his disciplinary record – a bit like me – but he’s proved people wrong with the likes of Neil Lennon sticking by him. He’s got the armband now and is playing every week with a lot of pride and doing well.”
Both players’ potential was spotted at an early age but it’s only now, aged 27, that Black is beginning to command the level of respect that potential promised. The rash tackling can still rear its head and fiery outbursts are occasionally still evident but these days he has harnessed a lot of the hot-headedness which saw him singled out by officials and opposition players and, instead, is doing more damage with his play. More than just a feisty competitor, he has shone as probably Hearts’ most consistently important player this term, taking games by the scruff of the neck and utilising his footballing brain as well as his work-rate and competitive edge.
“[Former manager] Jim Jefferies was a big help in that aspect but there’s been advice from everyone, especially my father who played the game as well. We talk after every game and he’s played a massive part.
“Jim Jefferies, Billy Brown, Gary Locke and the management staff now have spoken to me this year. They keep reminding me because sometimes the red mist comes down and when I hear that shout I know it’s enough to keep the head.
“I’ve worked on that side of my game, just as Scott has, but you can’t take that streak completely out of anyone’s game. You need that bit of aggression in football but I’ve tried to channel it in the right direction and I think I’ve improved a lot. He’s done that as well. I was the noisiest on the park when we were kids, but we’re both quiet now! The first 50-50 between us will still be interesting – he’ll be up for the fight and so will I. May the best man win.”
These days Black knows every challenge must be timed to perfection, the consequences weighed up before the boot goes in. Sometimes it still goes astray but he insists he is trying. “The game has changed. My old man says some of the tackles nowadays people wouldn’t have thought twice about and that’s frustrating. It doesn’t help when you get players rolling around, exaggerating and trying to get you booked rather than getting up and getting on with it. But referees are doing their job and you’ve got to try to be nice about it. A few bookings I’ve had have been harsh but my reputation over the past couple of years doesn’t help, which is why I’ve had to work on it.”
Today’s game will be played on the biggest stage of Black’s life. He says: “I’ve never played at Hampden before so I can’t wait. It will be a bit of a dream come true to step out there.” And he knows he can afford no lapses against the SPL Champions. In the three head to heads this season, Celtic have the upper hand with two wins to Hearts’ one but the fact the capital side have that single win means they are undaunted. They had to absorb news of right-back Jamie Hammill’s season-ending knee injury earlier this week but will be lifted by the return of centre-back Andy Webster, striker Craig Beattie and winger David Templeton.
“I’d say this is more or less the Cup final,” adds Black. “People would maybe say we’d be favourites if we get to the final but it doesn’t matter who the favourites are – it’s about how you do on the day. Right now we’re just looking at Sunday. Celtic have shown they’re the best in Scotland, their consistency has been brilliant, but they are beatable. We know where their weaknesses are and we’ll work on that. It was frustrating watching [the 4-0 defeat to Neil Lennon’s side in February] from the stand. The tables could have turned when we had an early goal disallowed which I think should have stood. But then they went up the park and scored and got some confidence.”
In recent weeks Paulo Sergio’s men have claimed the scalps of Rangers, secured an SPL top-six finish and even pegged back teams above them, leaving them two points below fourth place and seven off third. A turbulent season off the pitch with the club put up for sale and the players regularly paid late, it could still end in smiles. “We’ve had an up-and-down season – not just on the park but off it as well – so to beat Celtic and get to the final would be massive for the team, the club and especially the fans,” acknowledges Black, who is willing to play through the pain barrier in that quest for success. “I’ve got a double hernia but I’m battling on, it’s bearable at the moment so I’ll go on as long as possible and hopefully win on Sunday and carry on until the final.
“I’ve had it for almost two months and it’s getting to be a bit of a fight but I can get through it. When you have the operation, you can be back within two weeks so I wouldn’t miss anything important. I could be back before the end of the season if I had it early.”
That’s when Black hopes that a Scotland call up may materialise but his first priority is reaching the Cup final. “If you’re a player you’d risk anything to play in games like this. I’d play with a broken leg in a game like this because opportunities like this don’t come around so often so you’ve got to grab them and give it everything you’ve got.”
Harkins certainly made the most of the opportunity Hampden afforded him last month. He and Black shared digs when they went down to Blackburn as youngsters and both are now back in Scotland making a living in the SPL. “I was close to Gary,” says Black. “We were in the same house. He’s a great player who is doing really well up here. I watched him win the Cup with Kilmarnock and I was delighted for him. Obviously, Celtic being a big club and Kilmarnock doing the business, it was a big thing. Hopefully, I can follow him, go there and beat Celtic, get to the final and win that.”
After that, who knows. Black’s contract expires in the summer and he is keeping his options open. Hearts are his boyhood club and winning trophies with them is part of the dream but he has even bigger ambitions. He still believes he could do a job for Craig Levein as part of the national squad.
“I’d love to give England another crack. Having been down there and not doing it there and then doing it up here, I’d love the opportunity to give it another shot.”
A cup win over Celtic wouldn’t do that ambition any harm.