Frail hails team spirit as Velicka goals earn Hearts semi-final spot
HEARTS' traditionally sour relationship with the Scottish League Cup became much sweeter with last night's 2-0 victory over Celtic that took them into the semi-finals of the CIS-sponsored tournament. Having contested only one final since they won the trophy in 1962, the present-day Tynecastle side made up for their defeat by Rangers in that event in 1996, a match that was also played at Celtic Park.
With this latest success, the stats freaks were salivating over the fact that Hearts had not won a League Cup tie at Parkhead since 1954, apparently impervious to the rather deflating counter that, before this latest visit, they had only played one such tie in the previous 53 years.
None of this, of course, was of any concern to Stevie Frail, the hard-pressed coach whose obligation to face the media after matches had made him such a pitiable figure after his team's 5-0 thrashing at the same venue in a Clydesdale Bank Premier League match in August.
If anyone deserved an opportunity to wallow, rather than suffer, in a press conference, it was the admirable Frail. During his understandably joyous appraisal of his team's performance - capped by the two goals from substitute Andrius Velicka that secured the win - he was asked about his pre-match claim that his job could have been at stake.
"I was asked a question at a press conference and answered it," he said, "But, really, it was all a bit overdone. I think the fall-out from that press conference was a bit too much. I don't think I'm under any more scrutiny than any other coach. But this was really very good for us after a couple of bad results in the defeats by Kilmarnock and Dundee United in the last two matches.
"But I thought all along that the results were worse than the performances. I didn't think we played badly in the matches. And I think Dundee United have shown, with their beating Rangers on Sunday and then reaching the semi-finals of this tournament tonight, that they are a pretty good side.
"Who would I like to get in the semi-final? Listen, it won't matter which of the three come out of the hat, they will be very stiff opponents. Having said that, of course I think we can win the tournament. I thought we could win here tonight because I knew what our players are capable of at their best.
"The spirit is very good and this win will have us feeling a lot better about ourselves before going into the derby match with Hibs at Easter Road on Sunday."
Despite his two goals, Velicka could not be offered a guarantee by Frail that he will be included in the Hearts team from the start on Sunday. That is another of the famous joint decisions made by the management team at Tynecastle. But Frail hinted that Velicka is likely to remain on the bench when he was asked about his own preference.
"Andrius has shown before what he can do coming off the bench," he said. "He has also shown, with his goals in the fixture last season, that he can play in the derby match. But I'm a big Callum Elliot fan and I thought he had a great game tonight before he went off.
"We had spoken at half-time about substitutions and Velicka was certainly going to come on. As for Sunday, he certainly hasn't done his chances of starting the match any harm, but we'll have to wait and see."
Gordon Strachan, the Celtic manager, was disappointed with his team's squandering several chances, especially in the second half, before Velicka scored the first goal three minutes after replacing Elliot. But he was quick to quell any hint of controversy when he was asked if he thought the ball had run out of touch for a throw-in before Andrew Driver carried towards the dead-ball line and cut it back for Velicka.
"It doesn't matter what I think, because it's not my decisions," said Strachan. "But I'm certainly not going to blame somebody else for us missing the chances we did."
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