Can thrashing your local rivals to win the Scottish Cup ever be said to pale in comparison to anything? It’s not being overly nostalgic to claim that yes, it’s possible.
Simply ask some Hearts fans about the sensation of lifting the same trophy after so long without winning anything at all and following a series of near misses. Or catch up again with Jim Jefferies – a Hearts supporter, yes, but also, crucially, the architect of a Scottish Cup triumph over Rangers 20 years ago today.
“The time after us (in 2006) was Gretna on pens,” he says. “No disrespect but it was hardly playing Rangers in Glasgow, when they had a really good team.”
As both a player and manager, Jefferies knows all about the merits of winning an Edinburgh derby and the anguish of losing one. He can understand why most Hearts fans will feel nothing can top beating Hibs 5-1 to lift the Scottish Cup at Hampden, as happened six years ago. “You can only beat what’s in front of you but Hibs were near the bottom of the league,” he points out.
It’s not about ranking Scottish Cups wins – they all have their special charge. But there’s something undeniably special about what occurred on 16 May 1998. It’s not surprising he, along with others, will always place the 2-1 win over Rangers in its own special category.
Jefferies estimates Hearts were put together for the princely sum of £750,000. Rangers, meanwhile, were still smarting from missing out on their chance to claim ten in a row. Walter Smith’s side were reaching the end of a cycle, granted. But they still made for formidable opposition on a scorching day at Celtic Park.
“We were out at 2:20 pm,” recalls Jefferies. “Walter could not believe it. He kept his players inside another 20 minutes. I was like: ‘I never thought about that’… Our players were just so desperate to get on with it.”
All’s well that ends well. For what felt like the first time in a long time, things fell into place for Hearts. There was no seemingly customary sting in the tail. More than 800 will gather this weekend to mark the occasion
As the club’s official website puts it, it was the first time “in two generations” that a team from Gorgie had travelled to Glasgow and returned with the Scottish Cup. It was the club’s first trophy of any sort since the League Cup win in 1962. Hearts were becoming specialists in failure – it was often glorious, but failure nonetheless.
Jefferies recognised this. He based his team talk around the opportunity for those players in front of him to become the sort of heroes that are hailed two decades on. “There’s 75 per cent of this Hearts crowd believe that, after all that’s happened through the years, they will never see Hearts win a trophy,” he told them. “Let down in the league in ’86, let down in the cup final of ’86, other cups and semi-finals...”
They were not let down that afternoon. But it was far from plain sailing, even after Colin Cameron scored with a penalty after two minutes. Stephane Adam added a second but Ally McCoist, on as a half-time substitute, caused anxiety among the maroon hordes with a goal nine minutes from the end – or at least the end of regulation time.
Willie Young, the referee that afternoon, is one of the main speakers at Sunday’s celebration dinner at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Perhaps Jefferies will take the opportunity to ask him why he played so much injury time. Actually, he already has, countless times.
“He played seven minutes over time,” says Jefferies. “He just keeps telling me: ‘The big goalie was mucking about!’ ”
The “big goalie” was Gilles Rousset, a hugely popular figure whose own tale of personal redemption – he let in a soft goal en route to a 5-1 defeat against the same opponents at the same stage two years earlier – simply added to the epic tale. There were other stories within the story. Gary Locke, the skipper and boyhood fan who was cruelly denied an opportunity to lead out the team due to a hamstring injury but who was invited to accept the trophy along with stand-in captain Stevie Fulton.
And then there was the fate of a club legend, one whose goals had sustained Hearts for years. Not even the desire to give John Robertson one last hurrah was allowed to risk glory. Robbo himself advised caution with Jefferies close to bringing him on as a late substitute.
“Robbo understood,” says Jefferies. “I pulled him aside on the Tuesday before the game just to give him peace of mind and told him he was in the squad, but don’t say anything.
“He did not expect to be involved even though he had started the last couple of games for us, playing just behind the strikers.
“ ‘You’re in so you can relax’, I told him. ‘We might need you, because the last couple of performances you’ve done well bringing people into play’.”
In the end only Jim Hamilton featured off the bench, replacing Adam after 78 minutes.
“I was going to do it (bring Robertson on),” adds Jefferies. “But I am pretty sure John said: ‘If you don’t want to make the change, we are just about there’…It was a difficult situation. Make a change and then it goes wrong…”
There will be some inevitably poignant moments during Sunday’s event. One of the heroes won’t be present: Stefano Salvatori, who died from cancer late last year. A memory still burned into Jefferies’ mind is seeing Salvatori, a sober, ultra-professional character, dancing around Celtic Park with a maroon scarf tied around his head.
The Italian’s very marked absence means the first reunion won’t involve the complete team – and nor will all others afterwards. It is another reason why this special day in Hearts’ rich history must be cherished.