With Hearts fans’ scarves twirling and those supporters at the other end of the ground holding their breath, the ball landed at the feet of Aaron Hickey. Time froze, briefly.
But football’s well of outlandish stories had run dry on this occasion. The ball broke off the 16-year-old and Scott Brown, the old warrior and much else besides, cleared. Celtic kept their appointment with history, again.
Those as young as Hickey can barely remember a time when Celtic were not champions. The full-back was 13 when Celtic last lost a domestic cup game. This team are a remorseless trophy-winning machine that deserve all the credit going, even given Brown’s gracelessness after the final whistle.
While Hickey’s Hearts managed to disrupt the rhythm of their opponents, there was a sense of inevitability that Celtic would overturn their opponents’ shock lead.
Even when they are not quite ‘on it’, they find a way. Neil Lennon suspected Celtic might have to come from behind. At half-time he urged his players to avoid panicking if Hearts scored first, as happened eight minutes after the interval when Ryan Edwards pounced.
There was already enough evidence to suggest Celtic were not going to have things all their own way. Karamoko Dembele, Celtic’s own 16-year-old wunderkind, was primed to feature if his side were able to establish a large lead. But with a game to win and a treble treble at stake, Scott Sinclair was sent on instead. Nir Bitton was a later, defensive-minded replacement as the holders sought to hold on to the narrow lead secured by Odsonne Edouard’s double.
This was not the time and place to take chances with a 16-year-old. Except, of course, it was. Craig Levein still suffers from the perception of him as an extra cautious coach. While he’s shed this skin on numerous occasions, rarely has he gambled so outrageously than when opting to play Hickey from the start at left-back.
This was not an essentially meaningless tie of the sort six days earlier, when Hickey was named in the starting XI and Dembele came on at half-time for the hosts. This was a cup final. Hearts don’t tend to get to them very often. They were hoping to beat Celtic for the first time in a cup final since 1956. Hickey was exceptional, playing a central part in Hearts’ goal and keeping James Forrest, Scotland’s player of the year, quiet.
Indeed, Hickey of all people hit the first meaningful shot at goal in a game that was so much better than we had any right to expect. It was the type of end-to-end fare few neutrals dared hope for.
In grey, cool conditions, the fans created the kind of atmosphere that can still give Hampden a good name. The dampness underfoot helped lend a good flow to the game.
Sometimes the bar was set too high. Sometimes the players forgot who they were amid the intoxication of it all. At one point the ball plunged out of the leaden sky into the Celtic box and you could almost hear Christophe Berra’s thought process: ‘I remember Zinedine Zidane doing this’.
At the same end where the French legend scored one of the great European Cup goals for Real Madrid, the Hearts skipper needed the same perfect connection for a volley into the top corner. He drew back his boot and… lost his footing. The ball went splat on the wet turf in front of him and Celtic quickly broke upfield. Berra, to his credit, picked himself up and chased back. When nothing came from the attack, he allowed himself a rueful smile.
On a day Celtic wore the No 5 as well as No 9 on their shorts to pay tribute to Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers, Peter Haring almost speared the Parkhead side with a McNeill-esque towering header from a corner. More than one person noted the minute – 67 – as he rose to try and direct a corner into the net. The ball flew over.
The game was sitting at 1-1 then. While Hickey’s story was impossible to better, Edwards not only featuring but also scoring ran it close. The Hearts midfielder only made his first-team debut in April having been quickly deemed surplus to requirements after signing last summer. But he has taken the recent opportunity to impress and benefited from concerns over Harry Cochrane’s fitness to start on Saturday and put Hearts ahead after finding himself in the right place at the right time to sweep Sean Clare’s back heeler past Scott Bain.
He ran to the corner flag and fell on his knees, later tweeting to tell Hearts fans it was “a dream moment shared with you all I will never forget”. Its significance began eroding within nine minutes, however. Zdenek Zlamal careered into Edouard to concede a penalty that the striker converted to the right of the keeper, whose fingers flicked the ball as it sped into the corner.
The winner was well-taken but cruel on Hearts, Berra in particular. As he had most of the afternoon, the defender won a header. But then he chose to advance while Edouard hung deep. The ball came back and Berra’s hesitation was fatal. Edouard sped into the space behind him and finished expertly.
Never mind Zidane, Berra tried to channel a Roy of the Rovers storyline near the end when he flung himself at Michael Smith’s deep cross. But he could not direct the ball into the top corner to earn some personal redemption as well as extra-time for his side. When the ball ran away from Hickey with seconds left, Hearts knew all their efforts had been in vain.