JOHN Hughes has admitted he was poised to substitute David Raven shortly before the defender scored a dramatic and historic winning goal for Inverness Caledonian Thistle against Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden.
Raven struck three minutes from the end of extra time to secure a 3-2 triumph for the 21-year-old Highland club who will now return to the national stadium to face Falkirk on 30 May in their first ever Scottish Cup final appearance.
As Celtic’s bid for the domestic treble foundered, there was controversy amid the thrills as the match officials failed to spot a handball by Inverness defender Josh Meekings which would have been a red card offence and given Ronny Deila’s side the chance to go 2-0 in front from the penalty spot. But while Hughes accepted Inverness had “got away with it” in the incident which helped turned the tie in their favour, he insisted his players merited their victory overall.
Hughes, who is now firmly on course to lead Inverness into Europe for the first time in their history, was also left to reflect with relief that he had not withdrawn eventual match-winner Raven from the action.
It was only a third career goal in 328 senior appearances by the 30-year-old former Liverpool, Carlisle, Shrewsbury and Tranmere player.
“It was unbelievable that David came up with the winner,” said Hughes. “Before extra time started, I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and pulled him to his feet because he was sitting on the pitch.
I know Ronny Deila will feel aggrieved, because I certainly wouldJohn Hughes
“I told him that was a sign of weakness in those circumstances and not to show it. Before he scored, I was looking to bring him off and replace him with a winger in Aaron Doran who could play more advanced. Thankfully I didn’t do it and David came up with the goal. I didn’t realise until just now that this is the first time the club have been in the final of the Scottish Cup and that’s a remarkable achievement given it was only formed 21 years ago.
“I’ve put my stamp onto the club since I’ve come into it, in terms of the philosophy and the way we want to play football, and the buy-in from the squad has been different class. The players deserve their day in the sun because there are some good spirited guys in there and I’m delighted for them to get that reward.”
In a see-saw semi-final, Celtic were reduced to ten men when Craig Gordon was sent off in conceding a penalty which Greg Tansey converted to cancel out Virgil van Dijk’s opener for the Scottish champions.
Edward Ofere put Inverness ahead six minutes into extra time, but substitute John Guidetti levelled for Celtic seven minutes later, before Raven’s strike prevented a penalty shoot-out.
“I’ve not seen it again yet, but judging by the reaction of the Celtic players, we got away with a penalty and a sending-off with Josh’s handball,” added Hughes.
“That was probably the turning point in the game. I know Ronny Deila will feel aggrieved, because I certainly would. This was Celtic’s biggest game of the season and if they had won today, they would probably have gone on to win the treble. But it’s part and parcel of football and you need a wee bit of luck to beat Celtic.
“It’s a great story, isn’t it? We are a wee provincial club formed in an amalgamation 21 years ago. We lost our captain Richie Foran to injury at the start of the season, then had to sell our top scorer Billy McKay in January. We have had to go again and adjust.”
Celtic manager Deila remained philosophical about the manner of a defeat which ended his treble ambition and insists his player will quickly refocus on their bid for the Premiership title which resumes against Dundee at Dens Park on Wednesday night.
“It’s hard to take, of course it is,” said Deila. “But I’m already thinking of the next game because the league is the most important thing.
“I don’t have to say much about the handball incident. We have five match officials now, but maybe we need seven. You can’t blame the main referee for that. Everyone knows that the game would have been finished if we’d got the penalty and their player was sent off.
“But that’s why it’s so hard to win the treble. It’s small details which can make you fail. I also have to congratulate Inverness. They are a good football team and have a big chance now to win a trophy.”