The order came down from on high that Murrayfield’s grass had to be cut on the lowest setting so that it would resemble the turf at Hampden where this semi-final should have been played.
The idea was that the home of rugby should replicate the home of football but how was this possible when there wasn’t a Barbour or a kilt to be seen? When, rather than hip flasks, possibly monogrammed, the pre-match preprandials for a group of visitors from Glasgow’s east end involved a cheeky wee bottle of Buckie? When fans of the other team staged the biggest demonstratio of freestyle scarf-twirling Edinburgh has ever seen?
Celtic vs Hearts, because of recent dramas over grass length, borderline thuggish tackles and the bursting of the Invincibles’ balloon, was always going to be tantalising wherever it was staged, but here were the Betfred Cup rivals amid the sylvan crescents of one of the capital’s most upmarket districts, utterly transforming it.
The semi-final was making history: the most significant round-ball game ever played in the stadium of the egg. It was also affording us a sneak peak at what might have been. If the decision last month of football’s rulers had gone a different way then all showpiece matches were going be played here instead of Hampden. This could have been a try-before-you-buy opportunity where proposals which looked trite on the portfolio page came vibrantly to life via a vital contest in a packed ground. Well, even the most hardline Hampdendite Remainer must have been impressed by the noise and clamour generated by this one.
The grass had been cut to Hampden length so there could be no more squabbling between these teams over Celtic losing their smallest players in the long reeds, as happened earlier this year at Tynecastle. James Forrest missed the team bus back to Glasgow and when he eventually re-appeared three days later he was with a Japanese soldier who thought the war was still going.
Craig Levein, the Hearts manager, had stated he had no more need of the sharp practice of keeping the Tynie lawnmower blunt. It had been necessary to try to slow Celtic down but now he had a team capable of playing football, and a table-topping one at that.
It wouldn’t be hard to play more football than Hearts did last season but this lot are a considerable upgrade, although semi-finals are not necessarily the best place to show off your fanciest skills and both teams stayed true to this logic in the tense, scrappy early phases.
Far away from Glasgow’s London Road, in miles and milieu, the Hoops-themed souvenir stalls tried to do good business but the scarf bearing the legend “Oh Scotty Sinclair, he is so wonderful, when he scores a goal it is so beautiful, magical” seemed a tad optimistic on current form.
Hearts’ veteran strikeforce, the Stevens Naismith and MacLean, were prominent early although neither in the manner their manager would have liked. MacLean – who’d contributed to some bullish Hearts build-up to the game by declaring he hoped Celtic would return from their most recent European excursion having been “pumped” – was booked in the opening minute. Then Naismith tweaked something in those piston-pumping legs of his and had to quit.
How were the players enjoying the rugby pitch, albeit that it had been tailored for their sport? Well, shortly after Naismith’s exit, Eboue Kouassi, with no one near him, clutched at a thigh in some discomfort. He persevered for a bit and then at a Hearts corner MacLean grabbed him between the legs in an ungentlemanly way. He writhed on the ground for a bit and then – as a consequence of the first pull, presumably – his game was over, too.
The Celtic Ultras generated some noise, their block-booking for seats in close proximity to their demented drummer having come through okay, while the Jambo contingent continued to twirl furiously. In truth there wasn’t much to shout about, but one individual contest did distinguish itself: the one between Tom Rogic and Peter Haring, Australia vs Austria, two of the tallest guys in the midfield scene. Both slipped lovely, inviting balls into the opponents’ box, each coming to nought.
It was a tight contest with lots of miscontrol, which was most frustrating for Celtic who worked the better positions, but not everyone had Rogic’s silken touch. But Haring climbed for a header from a corner which MacLean helped over the line. Nearly 30,000 Jambos roared but the striker was offside.
Then another featherlite touch by Rogic took him away from his lofty marker and sparked a break, but as the pair tumbled to the ground together Haring wouldn’t allow Rogic to rejoin the move, proposing they cuddle on the specially trimmed grass for a while. In the second half, Rogic continued to produced twinkling moments, one such being broken down by Odsonne Edouard getting in his way. The big Frenchman wasn’t having the most productive afternoon, being well marshalled by Clevid Dikamona
Surprisingly, the breakthrough came from the man on the scarf, Sinclair despatching his penalty with aplomb. Celtic then went for the kill, Kieran Tierney bursting from deep like rugby’s Stuart Hogg to join in the breakaways. Playing in west Edinburgh against Hearts, away from the claustrophobic Tynie, had lost whatever anxiety might have remained within the Celtic ranks as Zdenek Zlamal fumbled the ball for the Treble Treble-chasing team’s second goal. The third was the cue for a large number of Jambos to head for the exits, back to their favourite bars, just along the road.
In this home-from-home it wasn’t their team’s day. Indeed, the scoreline could have been more severe – they might have been pumped. Celtic won, and so did Murrayfield.