If their supporters could have scripted yesterday’s events, it would have gone something like this: a win and a place in the final, preferably via a late goal, Rudi Skacel on the scoresheet, none of the “yellow card nine” being booked, and if all of the above left Celtic reeling with indignation then so be it. Their wishes were granted to a tee. Just to rub it in, the scorer of that late winner was a former Parkhead employee.
Hearts now face Hibs at Hampden on Saturday, May 19, in the biggest of all Edinburgh derbies. No-one alive has witnessed the Capital clubs play one another for the Scottish Cup. Their only other final meeting was back in 1896, at Logie Green in Edinburgh, with Hearts winning 3-1. If you thought the 2006 semi-final between the teams was big, you ain’t seen nothing.
Craig Beattie’s late penalty secured Hearts’ place in a final which will appeal to football fans across the country. It arrived just three minutes after Gary Hooper had equalised Skacel’s opening goal, and the penalty decision was hotly disputed by Celtic. But becoming bogged down in that debate right now would be an injustice to those from Tynecastle, whose character and defiance continues to astound.
Many teams conceding an 87th-minute equaliser to Celtic at Hampden in a national cup final would have folded. Hearts didn’t. They retorted. Beattie’s penalty was dispatched beyond Fraser Forster in the 90th minute, and with that the game was up. The striker sprinted off round the track, followed by a posse of team-mates, for a “taps aff” celebration which few have bettered in Hampden’s illustrious history. He only joined Hearts in February, but Beattie knew what this meant.
As did his manager, Paulo Sergio. “I’m very happy for our supporters. To see them with all this joy and happiness makes this a great day for us,” he said. “This game did not come at the best moment for us. Stephen Elliott has been out for four weeks, David Templeton for seven, Beattie for two, but we fought together to solve our problems. I’m very proud of the players.
“We had a strategy for this game to use the subs a bit later in the game, but I wasn’t happy with the first half. We wanted to give the initiative to Celtic and use the counter attack. We weren’t finding the spaces to play in the first half and we needed another body up front to allow us to play higher up the pitch. We had a great second half.”
That they did, largely thanks to the half-time introduction of Beattie. Within seconds of the restart his pass fashioned the opening for Skacel to round Forster and break the deadlock. Then, his nerves held to score the winner from the spot. “We didn’t beat a poor team. We beat Celtic, the champions of Scotland. They have a great squad, great technical staff and a great manager,” said Sergio.
As for the final, the Portuguese was philosophical and laid down the law to any player contemplating coasting through the next month: “For me, to play Hibs is the same as to play another team. It’s a game, an opponent to respect and when the time comes we will be ready for that. Everybody at Hearts should put their foot to the floor because we have important things to do next week. Around me they have to be focused on the next game. If I feel that they are not focused on that then they will not play. Maybe they will lose their place in the final.”
The best chance of a quiet first half controlled by Celtic fell to Ki Sung Yueng, who headed Mikael Lustig’s floated cross against Jamie MacDonald’s right post on 45 minutes. The South Korean ought to have scored and his profligacy was punished as soon as play resumed. Beattie’s entrance had an immediate impact as his first-time pass sent Skacel through on goal. The Czech rounded Forster expertly to slot his finish high into the net.
Celtic’s lack of a response indicated this might be Hearts’ day. Everyone in maroon was industrious and disciplined and fought like tigers for the cause. After a few attempts from distance from Skacel and Beattie, Celtic besieged MacDonald’s goal during the closing stages. Ki headed against the post again, this time from Kris Commons’ free-kick. MacDonald was then at full stretch to deny both Commons and Charlie Mulgrew.
Eventually the pressure yielded an equaliser when the unmarked Hooper headed Mulgrew’s cross home. Celtic’s celebrations were as much in relief as anything, but minutes later they fell behind again. Marius Zaliukas, forward for a corner, struck a shot from the edge of the box which careered off the arm of Joe Ledley and bounced down to strike the hand of substitute Victor Wanyama. Referee Euan Norris pointed instantly to the penalty spot as Celtic erupted in rage.
The award was debatable. Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, claims Norris penalised Wanyama and not Ledley. By the letter of the law, Ledley’s arm was up – not by his side – when the ball struck him. That would make it a penalty. If Wanyama was penalised then the decision was somewhat cringeworthy. Beattie didn’t wait to argue. He collected the ball and sent it down the middle past the diving Forster from 12 yards.
“Yet again we feel like we’ve been done,” said Alan Thompson, Celtic’s assistant manager. “The League Cup final, we had a stonewall penalty (not given). We are very, very disappointed to say the least, more for the players and the fans.”
Thompson argued that Andy Webster should have been penalised at the other end for handball seconds before the end, even though the ball did not strike Webster’s arm. “It’s inconsistency from the referee. If one’s a penalty the other one’s a penalty,” he continued. “Initially we thought the Hearts one wasn’t a penalty. The ball came up to Joe Ledley’s hand and it was so close to his hand he couldn’t get out of the way.
“If that was a penalty we thought the Webster one should have been a penalty. There’s an inconsistency with how the referee sees it. Yet again we think we’ve been done from a big decision. On the whole we’re disappointed and thought we deserved more.”
Lennon took to Twitter last night to vent his frustration. “Feel so sorry for players and fans . . . I think it’s personal myself,” he wrote. Celtic’s sense of injustice might just make this victory all the sweeter for supporters of Hearts. The fact their team had secured a Scottish Cup final place against Hibs was also rather pleasing.