HEARTS supporters will wish to forget Sunday’s 7-0 Scottish Cup annihilation at the hands of Celtic as quickly as possible.
But there are some days in football which remain lodged in the memory forever, regardless of whether you reflect upon them with fondness or despair.
It is one such occasion which Celtic first-team coach Danny McGrain referred to when he was asked to assess the standard of performance produced at Tynecastle. Hearts fans are advised to look away now.
“The last time I can remember Celtic playing as well was when we beat St Mirren 5-0 at Love Street to win the league in 1986,” said McGrain.
That, of course, was among the most painful afternoons in Hearts’ history as they saw the championship slip from their grasp on the final day of the season, their 2-0 defeat to Dundee at Dens Park allowing Celtic to pip them at the post with their five-goal romp in Paisley.
McGrain was Celtic’s captain that day, memorably initiating a stunning length of the pitch move which culminated in Mo Johnston making it 3-0, the highlight of a scintillating team display.
“Hearts were going to win the league that day, so we had no fear,” said McGrain. “We went out and played with a freedom. We played amazing football that day.
“We couldn’t afford to lose a goal at any stage in Paisley but I don’t think we were aware of that. If they’d scored one and Hearts had got one, they might have won it. But we just played like the players played on Sunday – no fear, just totally relaxed.
“So I would relate how we played at Tynecastle yesterday to that day against St Mirren. The performances were similar. Everybody played well against St Mirren back in ’86, everybody played well on Sunday.
“There were even goals from Scott Brown – him scoring two is unheard of. It was a magnificent performance. There’s not a word really to describe how we all felt, more so the manager, at full-time. It was probably going through his mind ‘This is what I’ve wanted’.
“But it’s OK reaching the top of the mountain once. We’ll be looking for that every week now, to do it again. We’ve shown we can do it. The players have now put the challenge up for themselves.
“When you play the way we did, it’s going to be hard to replicate that. After we beat St Mirren 5-0, I didn’t think we’d ever play that way again.
“But these players will get huge confidence from what they did on Sunday. Their next game is on Friday night against Motherwell, who just lost to Albion Rovers at the weekend, so they’ll be getting the sleeves rolled up knowing we’ve just scored seven goals against Hearts. They won’t want a doing.”
McGrain is dismissive of suggestions Celtic’s display should be placed in the context of facing a youthful Hearts side whose strength has clearly been diminished by their financial crisis.
“Okay, they are a young Hearts team but they’ve beaten Aberdeen twice this season,” reasoned McGrain. “No one called them a young team then.
“If they are a young team they’ll have learned something from the game. What, I don’t know. But if you’ve been beaten 7-0, each and every one of them will have learned something different from it.”
There was no sympathy for Gary Locke’s players from McGrain who revealed Celtic were trying to achieve an even bigger margin of victory against them.
“Oh no, you don’t feel sorry for anyone,” he said. “You are just happy that your team is winning. You don’t even think about your opponents. You can’t have sympathy for anybody.
“They were pummelled, given a lesson. But we were still looking for eight when we got seven. We didn’t stop scoring and feel sorry for them. That used to be the old schoolboy thing didn’t it? If you scored 10 at half-time, the coach would say to stop at 15. But that’s when you are a schoolboy. We were still looking for eight or more.”
Sunday was the perfect way for Neil Lennon to mark his 200th game as Celtic manager and delivered the ideal response to last week’s elimination from European football post-Christmas when they lost 3-0 at home to AC Milan.
“To play against AC Milan and then Hearts is a bit different,” added McGrain. “We saw the spaces and the holes all over the pitch on Sunday.
“It was a great reaction after the disappointing Champions League defeat. Even before the game, there wasn’t a feeling in the dressing room of not really looking forward to it.
“Once the manager spoke to the players at the hotel, and got them going, he wanted them to win although he wasn’t expecting a 7-0 victory. To win by two or three, and do it confidently, would’ve been nice enough. But to win the way we did, it just blew everybody away.
“To reach 200 games as Celtic manager is a brilliant achievement for Neil. He has grown mentally as a manager and he knows his players better than anyone. He has learned a great deal from two Champions League campaigns and he is still learning.”
McGrain was speaking at Hampden where he represented Celtic at the Scottish Cup fifth round draw which landed the holders a home tie against Aberdeen. “It’s our cup and we want to keep it,” said McGrain.
“Someone is going to have to take it off us. They will have to play very well to take it off us.
“The Scottish Cup was always special to me when I played as it’s the last game of the season. If you didn’t win it, and I lost a couple of finals, it was always a long, long summer. When you won it the summer just used to fly in and you went back to pre-season bouncing. But if you lost, it hung around your neck for a long time, even if you had won the league. The last game of the season is always the one you remembered and are remembered for. It wasn’t nice to lose it. We don’t want to see another team running around Celtic Park celebrating with the Scottish Cup.”
l Celtic have taken up the option to postpone a match in January to have a mini-winter break. Kilmarnock’s visit to Parkhead has been moved back meaning Celtic will not play between 5 and 18 January. A statement from the league read: “The Scottish Premiership match between Celtic and Kilmarnock, scheduled for Saturday January 11, has been rearranged for Wednesday January 29 after the SPFL board agreed to a request from Celtic.”