Hearts are far better equipped to cope with Celtic than they were last season. That is the long and the short of it, according to manager Craig Levein.
It’s why he is less anxious going into tomorrow’s Betfred Cup semi-final against Celtic than was the case during the last campaign, when he found he was having to blood inexperienced if talented teenagers while also trying to remain competitive.
This alchemy was achieved on one outstanding occasion when inflicting the first domestic defeat of Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic reign courtesy of a 4-0 romp. But this was hard to re-create week in, week out. Hence an attempt later in the season to unsettle Celtic by allowing the grass to grow a lot longer than Levein would normally prefer at Tynecastle.
There’s no need for such tactics, dubbed “embarrassing” by opposite number Brendan Rodgers, this time around. Not that they would be permitted in any case. The SPFL are in control of tomorrow’s semi-final. The grass has been cut to mirror the length at Hampden, where the tie was originally scheduled to be staged.
Levein is now more confident of Hearts’ ability to take on Celtic, wherever the game is played.
“We have better players and players with a better mind-set and we also have momentum, which we did not have last season, when it was all bitty – some good performances, then it would go to the next week and we would be poor,” said Levein. “Last season was constant work just to keep us in the top six. This season has been a bit easier.”
Midfielder Peter Haring, one of the reasons for Hearts’ success to date during this campaign, looks set to win his battle to be fit after a problem associated with a long-running hernia complaint. “If I was to guess, I would say he would play,” said Levein.
Hearts have already enjoyed one victory in relation to the tie: the venue. On the eve of a landmark semi-final occasion, when it’s predicted Scottish football’s largest crowd since 1989 will gather, Levein’s fury from earlier this month has mellowed into mild satisfaction.
The Hearts manager is an emotional character. However, he surpassed himself when reacting to the news Hearts were being forced to travel to Glasgow on a Sunday night to play the tie. Levein was adamant: never in his career he had known such disregard shown to supporters.
His reaction, and others like it, helped convince the SPFL to think again. Most would now agree the decision to relocate to Murrayfield at the more reasonable kick-off hour of 1.30pm has been a victory for common sense. Now we are eagerly anticipating what is claimed could be the biggest crowd at a football match in Scotland since Celtic beat Rangers in the 1989 Scottish Cup final. With Celtic selling out their allocation of 30,000 and Hearts expecting to reach nearly 29,000 sales in total, over 60,000 - including neutrals, sponsors and guests - are expected inside BT Murrayfield.
In addition, it’s set to be largest gathering of Hearts fans at a game since the 1986 Scottish Cup final, when the Tyncastle side – including Levein – lost out to Aberdeen.
The Hearts manager himself was unsure when he might have played in front of so many supporters decked out in maroon. There were times, in the late 1980s, when the Tynecastle terracing bulged to an extent that aroused suspicion.
“We played in some matches here when the capacity was 27,000 and [secretary] Les Porteous just kept printing tickets…. I think there were about 35,000 at the Bayern Munich game! [in 1989]. That’s probably the most Hearts fans I have played in front of.”
Levein’s main gripe with the original scheduling was that it precluded families from going. But he’s also pleased with the venue change since it makes for a more level playing field. Why should Celtic, with their history of reaching the latter stages of competitions, always have the benefit of playing at Hampden? It’s a semi-final. It’s supposed to be played at a neutral venue. Hearts, admittedly, have more recent experience of playing at Murrayfield, where they played four times last season as the construction of the new Tynecastle main stand ran into extra-time. But Celtic at least played some Champions League qualifiers at the rugby stadium in 2014. It is not a completely alien environment.
“The thing for me is going into the game knowing we are not at Hampden with just 10,000 Hearts supporters and 40,000 Celtic supporters,” said Levein. “That feels good for me. The fact we are not at Hampden, where Celtic regularly play, feels good for me as well. But we still have to do it on the field, so we will see...”
Hearts go into the game following a midweek win over Dundee that extended their lead at the top of the Premiership to six points. Celtic, meanwhile, fell 2-0 to RB Leipzig in Germany on Thursday night. “Does it give us 5 per cent more confidence?” Levein asked. “Maybe, I don’t know. Does Celtic losing affect their confidence? Possibly.”
What he does know is that reaching the final, then perhaps even winning the League Cup for the first time since 1962, would go some way to repaying supporters whose pledges, made via the Foundation of Hearts, were revealed to have reached the £8 million mark this week.