A BULLISH and commanding performance brought scant reward for Hearts last night as Celtic's clinical finishing secured them the SFA Youth Cup.
The Tynecastle youngsters had controlled over an hour of this intense final on an energy- sapping Parkhead pitch but still found themselves a goal down as the final seconds of regulation time ticked away.
That's when captain John Neill emerged with a desperate equaliser to force extra-time but even though Hearts continued to press they succumbed to two late sucker punches that put an unrealistic reflection on the evening's scoreline.
With several of his squad lying devastated on the pitch at full-time, coach Stevie Frail could only sympathise with their predicament.
"I can take nothing away from Celtic for what they have achieved over the season," he said, "but, from our point of view, I thought we were the better side and deserved more than we got.
"When I sit back and analyse the performance on video I'll probably be annoyed at the way we conceded the first two goals but with the level of performance we gave it's still a hard one to take.
"The dressing-room was silent and to a man all the lads were upset. It's a big final, especially for the ones who will be too old for under-19 level next season, and there is a lot of prestige attached to it. We lost having put so much into it and I feel for them.
"In terms of the players' overall development, which is what it's all about at this level, I need to be happy with that. Steven Pressley came into the dressing-room at the end and shook every player by the hand to show how proud he was of them. I didn't need to say anything after that."
First-team idol Paul Hartley was another who took time out from his own cup final preparations to attend this game, although he sat in amongst the 1200 Hearts fans who had travelled to Glasgow whilst Pressley took his seat in the directors' box.
Frail included Calum Elliot and Lee Wallace from the start in an attempt to increase his team's prospects and Elliot instantly stood out in the early stages in an unorthodox midfield role which he hasn't undertaken for over three years.
He had an early shot from distance that flew over the crossbar but perhaps the most evident aspect of his game was the wilyness he has clearly learned on first-team duty. A wee nudge here, a sly trip there. Nothing particularly evil but enough to enrage a couple of the Celtic midfielders, including Neil Lennon lookalike Charlie Grant. Rumour has it that Grant trained with Shettleston Juniors in Glasgow as a 15-year-old and that his tigerish qualities regularly saw Shettleston players jumping out of 50-50 tackles with him. But Elliot proved a match for the combative midfielder.
Dennis McLaughlin's through ball was misjudged by Celtic full-back Paul Caddis on 28 minutes but Jamie Mole's unusually clumsy first touch saw the chance of a one-on-one with goalkeeper Scott Fox evaporate. Hearts were to rue the spurning of their best opportunity.
When Simon Ferry made a piercing run through a gaping visiting defence and squared for Theodor Bjarnasson to score in first-half stoppage time, the sense of dejection in the away dugout was inescapable. Yet Hearts recovered to boss the second period and test Fox through McLaughlin, Mole and centre-back Alan Lithgow.
Just as it seemed all hope had gone, Darren O'Dea's partial clearance of Andy Driver's cross was chested down by Neill and his shot deflected off Scott Cuthbert and crept over the line.
Again Hearts dominated in extra-time despite many of their players suffering from cramp. Neill had a free-kick that flew only inches wide but poor marking at Ryan Conroy's 115th-minute corner permitted Michael McGlinchey the easiest of tasks to knock in Celtic's second.
The third was an excellent drive from 22 yards by the left foot of Mark Millar but by that time the visitors had run out of steam, and it was hard not to empathise with the tears that flowed come time up.
"It was obvious to everyone we were the better side, but we didn't take our chances," said Elliot. "It was a great game and everyone was gutted to get all the way to the final and then lose. These are the lessons you have to learn in football.
"The praise shouldn't go to me or Lee [Wallace], the praise should go to the other guys because they took us to the final. We came in and tried to help them get the victory but it wasn't to be."
Celtic (4-4-2): Fox; Caddis, Cuthbert, O'Dea, Richardson; McGlinchey (O'Carroll 118), Ferry (Conroy 100), Grant, Bjarnasson; O'Brien, McGowan (Millar 86). Subs not used: Traub, Skinner.
Hearts (4-4-2): Bjornsson; Thomson, Lithgow (Park 102), Jonsson, Wallace; Doherty, Elliot, Neill, Driver (Slater 112); McLaughlin (McCusker 100), Mole. Subs not used: Mackle, Barjaktarevic.