FOR years Hearts were depicted as a bunch of big, physical brutes by certain other Scottish clubs. Regardless of whether that assessment was unjust or not, times have certainly changed.
Physically, Inverness could trample all over their opponents tomorrow in the Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final at Easter Road. The Hearts manager John McGlynn openly admits as much and has spent his week planning a different playing strategy to counter the problem.
With Ryan Stevenson and Darren Barr suspended, diminutive youth academy graduates like Jason Holt and Scott Robinson are a mismatch against the brutal might of Inverness. Mehdi Taouil, for all his natural talent, isn’t likely to be able to help much. The Caley Thistle captain Richie Foran stands 6ft tall, Owain Tudur-Jones is 6ft 3in, with Ross Draper overtowering both at 6ft 5in. And that’s just the midfield. The Inverness back four contains only left-back Graeme Shinnie under 6ft.
McGlynn intends to adopt a high-tempo midfield passing game to counterbalance the physical deficit. His instructions are to move the ball quickly around opposing players who may be slightly less mobile due to their physique. He has the players for it in Holt, Robinson and Taouil and is convinced his plan offers Hearts their best chance to progress to a second national cup final in nine months.
“The guys we have are better footballers, I would say, so we have to pass the ball and pass it well,” said the manager. “We aren’t going to beat Inverness in the air in open play so we have to get the ball down and pass it.
“We’ve got to move the ball quickly. One of the biggest names in world football right now (Barcelona) don’t have the biggest team in terms of physique, but they can pass the ball and move it about quickly and they win every week. That’s what we’ve got to do. We won’t be able to beat them in the air so we need to play the ball on the ground and compete. We won’t give them time on the ball. When they have it we want to win it back and pass it quickly. Then we look to attack and get at the Inverness full-backs to get balls in the box and players on the end of them.”
Players have been made acutely aware of the aerial danger of Inverness. “They pose a threat with their size and they aren’t sitting second top of the SPL for nothing,” said Australian defender Dylan McGowan. “They are a physical team but we need to be able to match that whilst also getting the ball down and passing it. Ultimately we need to win the football match. I think I’m more comfortable with the physical side than the technical side, if I’m being honest with you. I don’t mind a battle at all.”
Both McGlynn and McGowan are entering the biggest match of their respective careers tomorrow. The League Cup may be widely regarded as the least important of Scotland’s three major trophies, but winning it would have a massive bearing on Hearts’ season. “This is definitely the biggest game of my career so far. Any chance you get to make it to a major cup final is obviously massive and to do it with a club like Hearts is a huge incentive,” said McGowan, whose older brother Ryan was a key member of last season’s Scottish Cup-winning Hearts team.
“The club has already won the Scottish Cup, although I wasn’t a part of it. This is why I came to Scotland, for games like this. You don’t get games like these in other countries. In Australia, there’s no cup football, so if you aren’t doing well in the league there is nothing else. I’m really looking forward to this and I want to get the chance to play at Hampden.
“I remember getting up really early in the morning last year and trying to watch our (Scottish Cup) semi-final against Celtic on TV and on the computer. I was on loan back in Australia and I was over the moon Hearts got past Celtic because I thought that would be the toughest game. They got to the final and I think they were the calmest team on the day and just took care of Hibs. That’s obviously a huge incentive for me. Seeing Ryan and the boys lift a cup is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I came to Hearts. Getting a chance to do it would make me happier than anyone.”
McGlynn is similarly enthused at the chance to guide Hearts back to Hampden Park just eight months since his appointment at Tynecastle. “It’s the biggest game with the biggest club,” he explained. “We got to the Scottish Cup semi-final with Raith Rovers and lost to Dundee United, so that was a massive achievement with a First Division club. The expectation at Hearts is to be in semi-finals so there is a welcome pressure that you want to achieve it. That means this will be the biggest game for me so far.
“This is a one-off situation and you need to rise to it. Hearts have shown in the past that they can do that. Even last season, when they weren’t having a particularly great year in the league, they went and won the Scottish Cup. By all accounts everyone then forgot about the fact they finished fifth in the SPL. It didn’t really matter because they won the cup.
“Hearts have a good tradition of doing well in the Scottish Cup but not so well in the League Cup. We’re hoping to change that. I’m sure many teams would like to be able to say they’re a good cup team. There are only three trophies you can win in a season – the league, the Scottish Cup and the League Cup. We still have one of those opportunities and many teams would like to swap and be in our position.”
The location of tomorrow’s tie favours Hearts, not only geographically. There is added incentive to win a semi-final at the home of Hibs, which is not lost on McGlynn’s players. “I think it does add a bit of spice,” said McGowan. “It’s good for the fans because it’s not far to travel. We’ll have a good support there and we’re excited to play there. To win a semi-final at Easter Road and reach Hampden would be great. Hopefully my nerves will be alright, although I won’t know until just before kick-off on Saturday. So far it’s been a good week and I’ve slept fine, but maybe tonight will be a bit more difficult.
“Generally I’m quite quiet in the dressing-room before kick-off. I keep myself to myself and I make sure I’m ready for the game. Before the derby with Hibs earlier this month I was really fired up. You see players getting an early booking, giving away a silly free-kick or even getting sent off and that’s detrimental to the team. It’s a team game and if you can give your best by being calm then that’s what you’ve got to do.”