MICHAEL Ngoo could hardly have made a bigger impact.
Inverness CT 1 - 1 Hearts (Hearts won 5-4 on penalties)
Scorers: ICT - A Shinnie (49); Hearts - Ngoo (66)
Referee: E Norris
The day after joining Hearts on a six-month loan from Liverpool, he went straight into the starting line-up for their Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, volleyed in the equaliser that took it to a penalty shootout and claimed one of the conversions that secured victory.
Six foot six inches tall, limbs flapping like a helicopter in freefall, he is an awkward customer all right, but he knows where the net is. Even before his goal, he had hit the post with a glancing first-half header. One thing is for sure, St Mirren will not relish facing him at Hampden Park on March 17, when Hearts attempt to win this competition for the first time in 50 years.
John McGlynn, their manager, gambled with his team selection on Saturday, keeping some of his most experienced players on the bench so that 19-year-old Callum Tapping could make his first start, and Fraser Mullen, another teenager, could play at right-back, but it was the debut of 20-year-old Ngoo that captured the imagination.
“He’s going to be a massive asset,” said McGlynn. “If you’re Michael, you’ll say: ‘I scored a goal, I scored a penalty kick, and I’ve got a final to look forward to. I want a bit more of that.’
“And he’ll only get better because he doesn’t know his team-mates and his team-mates don’t know him. They only had one training session.”
They seemed familiar enough with each other in the 66th minute, when Danny Wilson nodded Mullen’s cross back into the box, and Ngoo thrashed it in with a swipe of his long, left leg.
As his name resonated around Easter Road, you had the impression that a cult hero had been born. “I’m sure he probably enjoyed that, playing in front of 15,000,” said McGlynn. “With the greatest respect, Liverpool are a massive, massive football club, but Michael’s been playing under-21s with maybe 100 punters there.”
This was certainly a frenzied affair. Ten minutes after Ngoo had cancelled out Andrew Shinnie’s opener, Hearts had Scott Robinson sent off but they saw out the remaining 14 minutes of the regulation 90, as well as half an hour of extra time, to set up a shoot-out. The first nine penalties were crisp and accurate but Philip Roberts ballooned the tenth over the bar to send the Edinburgh side through.
While Inverness made the better chances, Hearts made all the running, thanks to the possession kept by a youthful midfield that also included Jamie Walker and Jason Holt, both 19.
They also dug deep when it mattered to line up a much-needed cash boost for the financially-stricken club, who have not reached a League Cup final in 17 years.
McGlynn, who took over as manager only last summer, can hardly believe that they last won the competition in 1962. “It’s obviously one that’s haunted us for whatever reason,” he said. “In recent years, it’s maybe not been looked upon as so important. Sometimes they’ve played weakened teams and it’s come back to bite them but such is the squad we’ve got that we’ve always got to play our strongest team.”
Inverness had their first-choice XI out, but they were not themselves, especially up front. Although Shinnie gave them the lead just after half-time, finding the bottom left-hand corner with an angled shot, Billy McKay will have nightmares about the chances he missed. In the first half, he had only the goalkeeper to beat but his shot, which lacked conviction, was blocked.
Better still was the opportunity that McKay squandered in extra time, when Shane Sutherland dashed clear of a square defence and struck a low ball across the box. Instead of taking it first time, the young Englishman wanted an extra touch, which allowed the defenders to recover. In the scramble that followed, Jamie MacDonald parried a shot by Shinnie.
It was an uncharacteristic slip by McKay, who has scored 20 goals this season, but his team-mates rallied round afterwards. “He’s done that a lot,” said Richie Foran. “You think he will slot it in but he takes a touch and then slots it in.
“He probably thought he could do it again. Yes, he’ll feel gutted about it, but we can’t rely on Billy every game. We’ve all got to chip in and do better. He’ll dust himself down and, I’m sure, go on to get 30-plus goals this season.”
It was a let-off for Hearts, who had been playing with ten men since Robinson was given a straight red card for his lunge at Owain Tudur Jones. There were also 10 bookings, including one in extra time for Marius Zaliukas, who will be suspended for the final. McGlynn admitted that his team will miss their Lithuanian captain, whose absence was sorely felt in the recent 4-1 defeat by Celtic.
“It will be a massive loss,” said the manager. “You saw at Celtic Park how influential he is. We missed him. When the ball goes in that box, there’s only one man winning it. He leads by example. He’s a great professional, a great captain, a great guy, really. But he’s going to miss out and that’s a blow.”