IF DEAN Brill doesn’t quite exude the requisite degree of empathy expected of Hearts’ opponents these days, he can be forgiven. The Inverness Caley Thistle goalkeeper has been there, done it and got the t-shirt – three times over.
During Brill’s long years of service at Luton Town, the club dived into administration on a hat-trick of occasions, with reckless spending sending the Bedfordshire club plummeting from the second to fifth tier of English football.
Amid the wreckage, though, the 28-year-old savoured a joyous career highlight before 55,000 supporters at Wembley.
Future Celtic signing Gary Hooper was a scorer for opponents Scunthorpe United as they were beaten 3-2 in the Football League Trophy final of April 2009, while future Caley Thistle signing Claude Gnakpa struck the extra-time winner.
Hearts take note. That season, Brill’s Luton proved beyond doubt that a hefty points deduction in the league was no barrier to cup success.
“When I came here to Inverness the motivation was just to play regularly again, so to have a big semi-final in my first season is a real bonus,” Brill admitted. “But it isn’t my first big cup occasion. I was involved in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final a few years ago – a big occasion at Wembley. It was surreal. At the time we were in a similar position to Hearts. We’d been deducted points at the start of that season and we were just out of negative territory, like Hearts at the weekend.
“Luton took 45,000 people to Wembley and, for a club at the bottom of League Two, that was just magnificent. Being my hometown made it even more special. It was a top day all round.”
Brill still remembers how liberating it felt to escape that season’s relegation battle and shift focus to the cup. “It was a break from the league and allowed us to play with a bit more freedom,” Brill recalled. “It’s something their manager may emphasise. Hearts have had their problems but we’ve played them twice this season and they’re still a good side.
“Those meetings have been real tough games and they will be full of confidence after their win at the weekend. They will go into this semi-final full of confidence, with no pressure – although we are exactly the same.”
Brill does express sympathy for Gary Locke and his team, given his own experiences of the kind of dire financial situation engulfing Tynecastle.
“Off the pitch, it’s hard because the financial side is nothing to do with the players. You don’t get any say in it, it’s just the hand you’re dealt. It was bad at Luton. There was a huge turnover of players and people lost their jobs. It is a horrible time and a big game like this can be a shining light. There were three administrations at Luton – and I was pretty much caught up in all of them!
“You often wouldn’t know until the morning of payday whether you’d be paid, which is hard with bills to meet and family to keep. But once you get on the training ground or pitch, everything is forgotten. A semi-final, by comparison, is the sort of pressure you want, especially given the season Hearts have had. So they will be positive, but so will we.”
In light of Hearts’ two recent victories, the last four clash has perhaps taken on a different complexion than it did at the time of the draw. Inverness have also lost their air of invincibility with just one victory in their last six matches.
“Their move into positive points territory will give them a lift and extra confidence, but we are also a confident group,” stressed Brill, who has signed a deal through to summer 2016 with Inverness.
“We have players coming back from injury and there has been a really good buzz about the lads. Given the venue, it is almost going to be like a home fixture for them but we will bring a small but noisy crowd with us and it won’t faze us in any way.”
Brill wasn’t in tow a year ago when Hearts triumphed at the same stage and at the same venue on penalties. Revenge, though, is not a word the goalkeeper has heard uttered in or around the dressing room.
“For me and the rest of the lads, it’s a chance to play in a big game,” he said. “I don’t think the lads will be looking back at last year’s semi-final. It would be great to make history with this club. We have done well in the league and, hopefully, we can create a bit of history. We can’t take anything for granted. We’ve beaten Hearts twice but it’s a one-off occasion – previous games don’t count. But we will be up for it and ready to claim our place in the final.”
Skipper Richie Foran could make a return to the Inverness side ahead of schedule after a shoulder injury, which would be a huge boost to his side if the player declares himself fit. Hughes told the club’s YouTube channel: “We are injury-free, suspension-free and Richie is back training so I am really looking forward to Sunday. (It is) one where, if we are at our best, we will win it.”