At the time of Craig Levein’s heart scare, his assistant Austin MacPhee joked about being outdone by club owner Ann Budge. While he had turned up for a hospital visit with grapes, she had lifted spirits by signing a new player.
But after a season of highs and lows, captain Christophe Berra and right-back Michael Smith know that a Scottish Cup win would serve as the biggest pick-me-up of the lot.
“It was a shock at the time,” said Smith, one of several players who signed extended deals this term, confident in the club’s ambitions. “I don’t think anyone knew how serious it was, we weren’t fed the most information and that was for the best because it would probably have affected us a bit more. We’re glad he was ok in the end and he is definitely back to normal. He’s laughing and joking. He’s one of the good guys and it would be great to get him a medal.
“He’s had a tough year, not just with football but with illness as well. So to cap it off with a winner’s medal would not just be great for him, it would be great for all the coaching staff and the administration people at the ground… everyone works so hard here. It would be great to give them all something to cheer about.”
The success of a season that promised so much in its infancy now rests on one game as Hearts attempt to defy the odds and their own recent form to take down the league champions. On top of the Premiership up to November, the fact they will finish at least 30 points behind Celtic illustrates just how badly form flipped and with some frustrated supporters now questioning Levein’s position, the players know they need to deliver in their biggest game of the season.
“We’re a really close-knit squad, so we’ll be doing it for everyone – the manager, the rest of the lads, the coaching staff, and first and foremost the fans,” said captain Berra. “They have supported us through the highs and lows and sometimes they show their frustration, which they’re allowed to do, that’s football.”
Berra was at the club in 2006 when Steven Pressley was captain but he was an unused substitute at the final and while he enjoyed those celebrations, he says they would mean even more this time around, but he is wary of getting carried away. “You don’t want to tempt fate. But if it did happen it would be the highlight of my career. Unlike Celtic we’re not fortunate enough to be in these games regularly, we’ve not been there since 2012, and it’ll be the first cup final for a lot of the players.”
Which is why guys like Smith do not want the occasion to pass them by, with photos and stories of the celebrations and open-top bus parades in 1998, 2006 and 2012 simply fuelling the fire.
“Seeing all that does make you want to be part of it,” he said. “Getting to the final is the first step and if we win it we can hopefully become heroes at the club. If we can win on the 25th we will become part of the history here.”