IT MIGHT be stretching it somewhat to claim that Billy Brown has had to endure a difficult relationship with the League Cup. He has, after all, been to two finals in the competition with two different clubs.
However, he finished on the losing side in both matches. While he was not at Hearts last season when they lost out in another final, to St Mirren, he is as keen as anyone at the club to go one better this time around.
“I don’t know about good League Cup memories, I’ve certainly had some bad ones,” the Hearts assistant manager conceded yesterday. “When we [he was assistant to Jim Jefferies] were at Kilmarnock we got beaten 5-1 by the Hibs and that wasn’t a good day.” But the 4-3 defeat to Rangers in 1996 at Parkhead during his first stint as assistant manager at Tynecastle is a perhaps more vivid – and painful – memory.
“We were down 2-0 and got it back to 2-2,” he recalled, before noting, with poignant timing given that last night saw another documentary on the player’s alcoholism plight aired on ITV, that it was Paul Gascoigne who turned the game in Rangers’ favour. “Gascoigne clicked into action that day,” said Brown.
“But it is a game I remember for the performance of Neil McCann and the whole team was immense. I suppose that would be my best memory. But even that was in defeat.”
Brown is confident that Hearts can recover from Saturday’s psychologically bruising encounter against Ross County to take another step nearer another final against Queen of the South tonight. After three defeats in a row, and the loss of two goals in the dying minutes on Saturday after leading 1-0, it would be understandable if heads were down at Tynecastle. However, Brown reported no signs of excessive self-pity in training. Indeed, he says the players are relishing the return to action in front of their own endlessly supportive fans.
He scoffed at the idea that a young Hearts side will be under pressure against their Championship opponents, who are currently lying in mid-table. After four league games without a victory, Jim McIntyre’s side returned to winning ways with a 2-0 success against Morton at the weekend. They represent a tough test, no question. However, Brown is grateful for the quick opportunity to bounce back after the anguish of Saturday’s defeat in the Highlands.
“I wouldn’t have liked to play anyone on Sunday morning after the way we lost that game,” he admitted. “But we came in here [on Monday morning] and everyone was up for it, there was nobody down. If there was then they would have been off the training ground immediately. The enthusiasm is there, the will is there.”
As for the question of pressure, he was dismissive. According to Brown, the players treat playing at Tynecastle as a privilege. “I have to say, I don’t think these boys are playing under any pressure,” he pointed out. “We have a group of young lads and their enthusiasm and lack of fear is an advantage to us.
“Playing at Tynecastle at the moment is nothing but a pleasure. The way the supporters – especially in the game against Aberdeen – get behind us is just fantastic. I don’t feel great pressure. I have been under a lot more pressure than this. We have a whole season to chip away at things. We have taken seven points from our last six league games; if we can do that every six league games then we will be alright. There’s no crisis just because we’ve lost three league games.”
It would be slightly perverse, but no less admirable, if Hearts managed to lift the League Cup, a trophy they have not won for over half a century, in a season when they have been left disadvantaged by administration. Given these straitened circumstances, they might be expected to treat the cups as an after-thought since they have their work cut out to remain in the Premiership, having been handed a 15-point penalty. But as well as offering the promise of glory, the financial benefit of remaining in the competition for as long as possible has also to be considered.
Brad McKay watched from the bench last season at Hampden as Hearts fell 3-2 to St Mirren in the final. Due to the off-field trauma at the club, he has the chance to consolidate his place in the first team. “Obviously it was a tough one to take at the weekend,” he reflected. “For any team – experienced or young – it is a harsh lesson. But training yesterday was upbeat and everyone was up for getting back at it again.”
McKay played against Queen of the South in a pre-season friendly at Palmerston Park that finished goalless. “They are a good team,” he said. “They like to get the ball down and get forward.” Being drawn at home means Hearts are spared a return to the artificial pitch in Dumfries. McKay agrees that there would be no more meaningful time to address the long weight for success in this competition.
“It has been a long time – over 50 years,” he said. “We were so close last year. Everyone was so disappointed last year. But as I said, we have the quality in the dressing room to beat any team.
“We just want a good season for the fans, because they have been behind us. Everyone is talking about staying up but if we get to a cup final as well it will be fantastic.”