THE match itself is supposed to pass by in a blur, it’s the celebrations that usually live long in the memory.
But the last time Hearts defender Danny Wilson was at Hampden for a League Cup final, he wasn’t really in the right frame of mind to party despite the fact he had just picked up a winners’ medal.
He simply didn’t feel he had earned it.
As the then Rangers player walked about the turf with his team-mates, soaking up the atmosphere, he felt like a fraud. He knew he had come close to costing his side victory, having spent a large part of the action holed up in the dressing room, alongside fellow bad boy Kevin Thomson.
Their red cards had presented St Mirren with the perfect opportunity to deny the Ibrox club a trophy but a late goal from Kenny Miller spared their blushes and won the 2010 League Cup final for nine-man Rangers.
“I went into the dressing-room after being sent off and the game was on TV, so I sat there watching it. Kevin Thomson had been sent off earlier so he was already in there. The two of us sat and watched it – but we couldn’t even speak to each other.
“It was a strange feeling sitting watching the game that was going on just outside.
“We were delighted when we won and we both went out for the celebrations afterwards. But we probably both felt we weren’t as deserving of it. It did feel strange. I felt I’d let the team down. But they went on to win and dug me out a hole. But I felt almost guilty for celebrating it.
“It was a strange feeling. I’d been sent off and I was so disappointed, but then we went on to win the cup. I couldn’t enjoy the celebrations as much as normal but hopefully we’ll win this time and I can make up for it.”
His infringement that day was a foul on St Mirren substitute Craig Dargo. With the game still precariousy poised at 0-0 he hauled back the attacker as he tried to latch on to a long ball. Referee Craig Thomson deemed it a clear goalscoring opportunity and, three years on, Wilson concedes it was the correct decision.
“There was about 20 minutes remaining when I got sent off but it felt a lot longer than that. The incident was all a bit of a blur really. I’ve watched it back since and I did deserve to be sent off.”
Aware they would have no further say in the result, he and Thomson watched the clock tick down and breathed a sigh of relief as Miller’s header found the net and the referee eventually blew the whistle. Wilson, who is on loan at Hearts from Liverpool until the end of the season, remembers that neither he nor the midfielder were sure if they would be allowed back out to join in the jubilation and the lap of honour. “I was allowed to go up and get my medal. I didn’t think I would be and I didn’t mind – I just wanted the team to win. But they let me back out to celebrate and I was delighted at that.”
A young lad – he’s still only 21 – he already has a full set of domestic medals. But he still doesn’t feel he has contributed enough on the major occasions.
He picked up his Scottish Cup bauble as an unused substitute in the 2009 final and while that 2010 League Cup one is treasured, it is also slightly tarnished by the sending off.
While older pros in the side tried to convince him it was “just one of those things”, he says it didn’t feel that way at the time and he is determined to contribute some happier memories to the cache at Hampden this afternoon.
Just as they did that day three years ago, St Mirren provide the opposition again today. Fairly evenly positioned in the SPL and with two wins for St Mirren and one for Hearts in their head-to-heads this term, it is expected to be another toughly-contested final.
Wilson would love Hearts to grab the game by the scruff of the neck but he says experience warns that it can often be all about simply grinding out a result.
“St Mirren were probably the better team in that final against Rangers – until I got sent off! They probably do see that as an opportunity missed. It’s not often you are in a cup final against a team with only nine men. They will be looking to make amends on Sunday. But we have got ourselves in the final on merit and we have our own ideas about the game.”
Relieved that after a run of five defeats, the Tynecastle players have picked themselves up just in time and are heading into the final with a win and a draw from their past two fixtures, Wilson knows what a victory would mean. He wasn’t at the club when they won the Scottish Cup back in May but there are a few survivors from that day and plenty YouTube clips to ram it home.
“It’s just good for the club to be back at another final. It’s been an up and down season and we want to win.”
Beating Hibs in May is something that cannot be bettered today in the minds of most of the fans, but it can be built on and, after a difficult season, the promise of triumphing in back-to-back finals does tantalise. For Wilson, so does the thought of redemption, an unblemished medal and guilt-free celebrations.