It may well only prove a hiccup on their way to Hampden for Hearts. Craig Levein’s men, though, will be sick to their stomachs at failing to see off Partick Thistle in the sides’ Scottish Cup quarter-final at the Energy Check Stadium at Firhill, with the result that the pair will require to reconvene at Tynecastle for a replay next Tuesday.
The draw, earned by a terrific equaliser 18 minutes from time, was reward for the struggling Ladbrokes Championship side’s refusal to give up on a tie they were tousled in across the entire first 45 minutes.
It seemed for all the world then that the Gorgie club would claim a first Scottish Cup semi-final since their 2012 success at a canter. However, they somehow failed to turn their total superiority into more than a 1-0 lead claimed for them ny early headed opener from Christophe Berra, and the encouragement this gave to Thistle made them an altogether different proposition in the second period. Incredibly, indeed, at the close it was Gary Caldwell’s side that were pushing for the winne
It was only 17 months since these two teams had last met at Firhill but for Thistle supporters it must feel like another lifetime ago. Then, their club was fresh from a top six finish in the Premiership, which meant they were only one position lower than the Tynecastle club in Scottish football’s pecking order.
Hearts currently hold that self-same status, but in propping up the Championship, Partick have experienced an alarming decline.
Yet, despite the very real possibility they will suffer back-to-back relegations, and even allowing for their last outing seeing them dumped 3-0 at Dunfermline in their last outing, Caldwell maintained in the lead-up to the tie that Hearts, and their physicality, did not present insurmountable obstacles to his side. The actuality proved somewhat different in a first half that proved a catchweight contest with a pummelling being taken by the little guy.
Levein’s men had won only one of their previous five encounters - their fifth round tie at home to Auchinleck Talbot - but the relish with which they set about their lower league opponents suggested they considered this a night to take out their frustrations on a poor unfortunate.
A knee injury deprived the visitors of Steven Naismith but with the out-house of a striker Uche Ikpeazu leading the line, Hearts had the man (mountain) to suit the occasion.
Thistle simply couldn’t retain possession as they were hustled into giving the ball, and fouls, away across as one-sided a first period as imaginable. The regular set-pieces allowed Hearts to hoist the ball into home side’s box and watch panic ensue. It so often did that the most remarkable statistic from the opening 45 was that the Tynecastle club only breached their opponents’ goal once during it.
That moment would have had Levein purring because it was the result of a training ground drill that came off to perfection. Oliver Bozanic, who was given all deadball duties it seemed, swept a 15th minute corner out to the edge of the penalty box where Ben Garuccio was stationed. He produced a chipped volley into the box that allowed Berra to climb above Steven Saunders and send a looping header over the fully extended Conor Hazard.
The 3,000-strong travelling support - who had held up a banner, as seems obligatory these days, chiding that “weekdays are for replays” in reference to the Monday night scheduling of the tie for live television purposes - delighted in expectation this would be merely the starter for a goal feast.
That the home fans feared the same was reflected in the fact they produced a huge roar nearing the halfway point of the opening period. It was inspired simply by their team succeeding in shuttling the ball into the Hearts half.
A novel sight, the recurring theme was Ikpeazu looking to steamroller his way through the Thistle backline or get on the end of high balls. He did both, but for all that, curiously it wasn’t until just before the interval that he threatened. The 24-year-old has a delicate touch as well as devastating power, which is sometimes overlooked, and he conjured up a delightful bit of keepy-uppy before unleashing an effort that went wide, after sending a drive just beyond the goal moments earlier. When Sean Clare then blazed over with the goal at his mercy, Hearts were entitled to be agitated at failing to kill off Thistle.
So it proved, as Caldwell’s men found the means to make a game of the tie in a far more even second half. In the 70th minute, they were fortunate that Hazard was able to produce incredible reflexes to push a zinger from Clare on to the bar before Uche Ikpeazu’s follow-up skimmed the bar, but they made these breaks count two minutes later with a dramatic equaliser.
Craig Slater produced a run down the left channel that seemed fuelled by jet propulsion before he delivered an exquisite cross with the outside of his right foot that allowed Christie Elliott to steam in a volley over the line from point-blank range.
Partick Thistle: Hazard; McMillan (Storey 74), Anderson, Saunders; Penrice; Harkins, Slater, Elliot, Spittal (McGinty 86), Fitzpatrick (Cardle 69); Mansell. Subs not used: Sneddon, Doolan, McDonald, Gordon
Hearts: Zlamal; Godinho, Souttar, Berra, Garuccio; Bozanic, Haring, Djoum, Clare, Ikpeazu, MacLean (Mulraney 81). Subs not used: Doyle, Lee, Dikamona, Vanecek, Keena, Hickey.
Referee: Bobby Madden.