WHEN you grow up in Bonnyrigg, you soon learn you were not born great. When injury denies you the chance to play on one of your club’s greatest days, you have lost your chance to achieve greatness as a footballer.
But tomorrow, in his fourth and probably final game as Hearts’ manager, Gary Locke may well have greatness thrust upon him.
There are men who took charge of Hearts for far longer and won nothing with the club. There are Hearts managers who have won trophies – among them Locke’s own mentor Jim Jefferies, in charge for the 1998 Scottish Cup final when Locke was not fit to play – yet failed to land the League Cup. Now, out of nowhere, after a defeat, a win and a draw in the league, Locke has the chance to become the first Hearts boss in half a century to claim that prize.
It is one of the great curiosities of Scottish football that one of the biggest clubs in the game should have gone for so long without winning the League Cup. Not half as curious, perhaps, as Hibs’ separation from the Scottish Cup for a century and more, but still something that defies rational explanation.
After first winning the League Cup in season 1954-55, Hearts went on to lift it three times more in the following ten years. Since then, they have suffered a trophy drought and have only once even managed to become losing finalists – in 1996-97, when they lost a classic match 4-2 to Rangers. That is the legacy of underachievement that Locke can abolish at a stroke, provided he and joint caretaker Darren Murray can mastermind a win over St Mirren.
Then there are the circumstances. The recent Hearts teams which have had massive sums of money spent on them, and boasted far more able and experienced players than this squad can muster, have never come close to winning the League Cup. Now here is a side shorn of its big names and strapped for cash, but still just that one win away.
Of the team which won the Scottish Cup just ten months ago, goalscorers Rudi Skacel and Ryan McGowan are just two who have moved on. Danny Grainger, who scored from the penalty spot, is out injured, as is captain Marius Zaliukas, although he would have missed the game through suspension in any case.
McGowan only broke into the team last season because of injury to right-back Jamie Hamill, who is still out of action. Since McGowan left for China, his younger brother Dylan has played in defence but he faces a late fitness test. Fraser Mullen has also played at right-back but he has been ruled out, again because of injury.
So, for all that his squad has been bolstered by the arrival of defender Danny Wilson and striker Michael Ngoo on loan from Liverpool, Locke has very few options when it comes to team selection. “We’ve lost a lot of experienced players over the course of the season and haven’t been able to bring too many in,” he acknowledged. “Every injury we get at the moment seems to be long term but it gives other players a chance and, hopefully, they’ll take it.
“Just now we just about have a squad for the weekend. There will be two or three who are disappointed they will miss out but that’s part and parcel of cup finals when you only have five on the bench. If they’re not playing, they’re very much part of what we’re trying to achieve here.”
Something similar could be said of John McGlynn, who was deposed as manager after Hearts lost in the league to tomorrow’s opponents at the end of last month. His brief reign had few high points but McGlynn did play a significant part in the side’s League Cup run, putting out a young team for the semi-final against Inverness, one which upset the odds to win in a penalty shoot-out.
“I haven’t bounced ideas off him, but I have spoken to him,” Locke said of his former boss. “I’m delighted that he’s going to be at the game.
“All the credit goes to John, and it’s a bit embarrassing for me to be here when he’s got us to the cup final, but that’s football. I’ve been put in charge for this game and hopefully we’ll do well.
“He’s reassured me that I should go out and enjoy it. That’s the mark of the man. He’s a fantastic individual and, when he left, he said to me to try and make the most of it. That’s what we’ve tried to do.”
While Hearts would not be at Hampden without McGlynn, they might well not be playing football anywhere this weekend but for the fundraising efforts of their supporters late last year. In case his players need any further motivation, Locke has reminded them of how much they owe to those fans.
“The boys are very much aware of that. The fans have been nothing short of remarkable the way they’ve rallied round the club and the money they’ve raised. This is a day out for them and they’ll come through in their thousands and, hopefully, we can repay them for everything they’ve done this season.”
It should be a tough, even match, and is unlikely to be high-scoring. St Mirren have won two of the three meetings between the sides so far this season, and Hearts have won the other. They are separated by a point in the SPL table, with Hearts in tenth and the Paisley club 11th.
In other words, this has been an undistinguished season for both, and the final offers one last chance to salvage something from it. For Locke, it could also be a last chance – and a first one – to make his mark as Hearts manager.
He knows as much, and is therefore determined to make the most of the day. And he has told his players to make sure that they, too, take time to savour the occasion.
“You’ve got to, and I said that to the players. You might only get one opportunity, and it’s very, very rare that you get to cup finals. When you get there you have to make the most of it.”
It’s one chance for Locke, which is one chance more than so many of his predecessors had to win a League Cup final. If he never manages a football club again, victory tomorrow will nonetheless ensure that his brief time in charge of Hearts is remembered for one very special moment.