IT IS remarkable to think that Danny Wilson made his debut for Hearts only a year ago, with his second appearance coming in a League Cup semi-final.
He returns to that stage on Sunday – at the same venue, versus the same team – after what must already feel like a lifetime at Tynecastle.
However, after successive league wins Wilson is walking with a lighter step. In 12 months, the 22-year-old has made his move on loan from Liverpool into a permanent one. He has been made captain. He has remained at the club despite the lurch into administration, which was confirmed just days after he signed a long-term contract. Some might have felt let down by the club in this instance.
Instead, Wilson put his shoulder to the wheel and his last-gasp header against St Johnstone nearly a fortnight ago secured a point and established a platform for a three-game unbeaten run that means Hearts are in good spirits ahead of Sunday’s clash with Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Easter Road. It is a convenient juncture at which to pause and reflect with Wilson on his time at the club, which began in earnest in a 4-1 defeat by Celtic. From Parkhead it was on to Easter Road, and a cup semi final – against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Sunday’s opponents. His most vivid memory is being “shipped out” to left-back by then manager John McGlynn.
“I hadn’t really played a lot of football and got told I was being played at left-back,” he says. “It was one of those games, there was the sending-off but we weathered the storm. I remember Billy McKay going through and missing a chance. I remember thinking then that it might be turning for us.”
He is beginning to think the same away again after the midweek win over St Mirren. Not only did the 2-1 victory secure a rare feat of back-of-back wins, but fortune also shone for the first time on the Tynecastle side for what must also feel like the first time this season. For once they benefited from a penalty that was awarded to them in contentious circumstances.
St Mirren, meanwhile, were guilty of missing several chances, while one attempt by Marc McAusland, who was later red carded for the penalty offence, bashed back off the bar.
“People will probably be saying that our luck is turning a bit now,” agreed Wilson. “But maybe we deserve that. We’ve had two wins, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves. It’s just a nicer feeling than the defeats we’ve had.
“We’re just happy to get a couple of wins,” he added. “Hopefully, that means we’re going into this semi-final with just a bit of form. Maybe things are going our way recently. It’s often said that, if you keep working hard, you get your luck.
“There have been times during the season when we’ve felt that we were only getting bad luck. Everything seemed to be against us. We didn’t get too downbeat about it. Everything is positive now after good results, but we know that all it takes is a couple of bad results to put us back to square one. The important thing is to make sure we give a good account of ourselves on Sunday. Luck is shining on us a wee bit. Hopefully, on Sunday, it’s shining on us even more.”
Although Wilson believes misfortune has been a factor in Hearts’ poor results this season, he is refreshingly candid about the players’ own contribution, which he believes has not always been what it could have been. He sounds surprised that the supporters have stayed with them as long as they have. “We’re all really striving to get through to the final, if only to give the fans something back, because they have backed us all season, even though our results have been nothing short of shocking,” he said.
Having played in a League Cup final at just 18 years old for Rangers, the prospect of playing in another one – his third in total, after last year’s appearance with Hearts – should hold no fear for Wilson. It is his young team-mates who might feel daunted, although, as the skipper points out, Hearts are not there yet. Wilson revealed that the teenagers in the dressing room around him are becoming so well-versed in top-level football that they require no words of encouragement from him.
“These boys have absolutely no fear,” he said. “There is no point me going into the dressing room and telling them to do this or that. You just let them go out and do what they can do, what they know they’re capable of. For the last two games, I’ve not said a word to them. So I’m not about to change that on Sunday.”
An Inverness side who have blown hot and cold so far under new manager John Hughes might feel they deserve to be blessed by fortune after last year’s loss to Hearts on penalties. “Inverness might not be in the best of form but they’ll be thinking that, if they can just put in one performance, it can turn their run around,” said Wilson. “They were the form team at the start of the season, really up there, and they’ve tailed off a wee bit. They’ve had a dip. But we’re under no illusions. We’ll be up against a really good team. They’ve got one of the best goalscorers in the league in Billy McKay.
“For a lot of these boys, this will be the biggest game of their career,” he added. “They’ve all been given an opportunity to play. It might be by default but they’ve all embraced it. Now they’ve got the chance to get themselves to a national final. At that age, at this stage of their careers, that’s a great opportunity for any player. There are 18 and 19-year-olds in that dressing room. I played in a final at 18. They’ve got the opportunity to get there and feel how I felt.”
Asked whether he will explain to them what it was like to be a teenager preparing to play on such a high-profile occasion, he smiled: “I’ll tell the boys that we need to get to the final first.”