Hearts were 2-0 down and 3-2 down but fought back to belie their Championship status and take this Christmas Scottish Cup final to penalties.
Celtic goalkeeper Conor Hazard – unconvincing during the previous 120 minutes – unwrapped timely gifts with saves from Stephen Kingsley and Craig Wighton to win the trophy.
His opposite number Craig Gordon stopped Ryan Christie’s attempt but the shooutout ended 4-3 to Celtic. Their celebrations underlined the tension at making history with a fourth treble in a row, although captain Scott Brown’s attempts to goad his opponents at the end were unnecessary.
Ryan Christie and Odsonne Edouard had Celtic 2-0 ahead and seemingly cruising at half-time. However, Liam Boyce and Kingsley brought the score level as Hearts fought back after the break. Substitute Leigh Griffiths put the Glasgow club 3-2 ahead in extra-time before Josh Ginnelly struck another equaliser.
It was the first time since 1910 that any side had come back from 2-0 down in a Scottish Cup final, but the day ended in heartbreak for Robbie Neilson and his players. Neil Lennon and Celtic celebrated their unprecedented achievement to continue their domestic domination.
The saddest element of this final was that no supporters were there to witness such an enthralling encounter. An empty Hampden is akin to a cavern waiting to be filled with noise and celebration. Sadly, Covid 19 put paid to that months ago. It brought death, illness and suffering for millions across the globe.
Having football is a very small consolation for those invested in the sport, even if they are restricted to a living-room vantage point. What the virus cannot stop is on-field entertainment and that was in abundance in Mount Florida.
Hearts’ residual anger from their enforced relegation to Scotland’s second tier was a major motivation for knocking Hibs out in the semi-final of this tournament back in October.
On the same day, they learned of the death of former captain Marius Zaliukas. The No.26 printed on their players’ shorts for this final was in his honour.
Neilson was attempting to become the first man ever to win the Scottish Cup as a Hearts player and manager. Lennon, was also chasing immortality in the shape of a fourth successive domestic clean sweep.
Neilson sprung a surprise with a 3-5-2 starting formation against Lennon’s 4-2-3-1. However, that back three quickly became a back five as the Glasgow side controlled the early possession.
Celtic complained that Steven Naismith stamped on Brown during a scuffle on 18 minutes, which may lead to retrospective disciplinary action against the Hearts captain.
Seconds later, the Parkhead side scored first. Christie collected a loose ball 20 yards from goal after it ricocheted off Aidy White’s head. The Scotland internationalist then angled a perfect curling finish high into Gordon’s top corner with his left foot.
Hearts’ gameplan had been conservative and within ten minutes they conceded again. When Shane Duffy’s header from a corner struck Christophe Berra’s flailing arm, referee John Beaton had no hesitation pointing to the penalty spot.
Edouard stepped up to clip a Panenka penalty past the diving Gordon and secure a two-goal cushion for his team. Gordon responded by throwing the ball at his former team-mate in disgust.
The task facing Hearts was mountainous and their approach needed to change. Recent weeks exposed weaknesses in Celtic’s defence but those in maroon had barely laid a glove on it.
Neilson knew his team had to assert themselves far better and they scored within three minutes of the restart. White’s drove down the left before Andy Halliday curled a cross to the back post, where Boyce headed the ball against the balance of Hazard and into the net.
That raised Capital spirits but Gordon still had to thwart Mohamed Elyounoussi at his near post. Neilson introduced Ginnelly as a substitute and the Englishman brought further impetus.
A defensive collision involving Duffy and Christopher Jullien gifted Ginnelly possession 35 yards out. He sprinted off and dispatched a shot early which Hazard palmed away. Hearts were now playing with better belief and looked an altogether different proposition.
Celtic, by contrast, were rattled. The Naismith-Brown duel continued at every corner and set-piece. There were a number of those as Hearts pressed and eventually forced an equaliser.
Ginnelly’s corner was missed by Hazard and Kingsley headed the ball goalwards at the back post. David Turnbull cleared as every Hearts employee inside Hampden seemed to raise hands in unison claiming the ball had crossed the line.
Eventually referee Beaton blew his whistle, pointing to his watch to indicate technology had confirmed a goal before the clearance. A comeback which looked unlikely just 20 minutes previously placed this Scottish Cup final in the balance once again.
Celtic struck at the midway point in extra-time to take a 3-2 lead. Brown headed a corner goalwards and, after the ball rebounded off Gordon’s leg, substitute Griffiths was in place to score.
Still Hearts refused to relent. In the 112th minute, they restorted parity once more. Lee’s free-kick was missed again by Hazard and Kingsley – again at the back post – headed across goal for Ginnelly to blast in from close range.
Then came penalties. Naismith, Michael Smith and Lee scored for Hearts but Hazard saved from Kingsley and Wighton. Griffiths and Callum McGregor converted for Celtic before Gordon saved from Christie. Mikey Johnston and Kris Ajer struck Celtic’s last two to win the cup.
Celtic (4-2-3-1): Hazard; Ajer, Jullien, Duffy (Johnston 90), Taylor (Laxalt 83); Brown (Soro 105), McGregor; Christie, Turnbull (Rogic 68), Elyounoussi (Frimpong 83); Edouard (Griffiths 97).
Hearts (3-5-2): Gordon; Halkett, Berra, Kingsley; M Smith, Walker (Ginnelly 57), Irving (Frear 109), Halliday (Haring 90), White (Lee 82); Boyce (Wighton 70), Naismith.