How Celtic and Hearts served up a Scottish Cup final that will still be talked about in 100 years time
So where do you begin? Where. Do You. Begin. Leigh Griffiths bowled on and did what he does. Hearts stormed back twice, initially from two goals down, the first side to do so in a Scottish Cup final in over 110 years.
And yet these are mere details. By the time the final finished, the opening goal, another stunner from Ryan Christie, felt like it had occurred a long time earlier than the same afternoon.
The game went on and on, twisting this way then that way. Potential heroes emerged before sinking back into the general melee, left behind by an afternoon - and nearly evening - bulging with storylines. The Griffiths goal, for example, to put Celtic 3-2 up, felt like a footnote by the end despite the former Hibs player coming so close to being the hero.
What a pleasure this was to watch. What a pity the vast majority were doing so on sofas in rooms lit by twinkling Christmas trees. It was of course the first Scottish Cup final for which Fairytale of New York was included on the pre-match playlist.
While it’s not unusual for Scottish Cup finals to be played in wretched weather, with Tom Rogic scoring the winner in 2017 while a bolt of lightning lit up the dark skies above Hampden, this was the first played a single digit number of shopping days before Christmas, and in the midst of a pandemic.
It was far better than anyone had dared expect at the end of a year when we’ve been taught to have such low expectations. The extra-time and penalties seemed to take the BBC by surprise. There was barely time for even rudimentary reflection at the end of such an epic occasion.
Celtic were confirmed the world’s first quadruple treble winners and Martin O’Neill, the star guest, was permitted only the briefest comment. Michael Stewart and Shelley Kerr were denied even that. Countryfile can’t be kept waiting!
O’Neill had provided his money’s worth before kick-off, when he railed against pundits who had been “basement dwellers” as players, and again at half-time, when he poured scorn on Christophe Berra for an “inexplicable handball”, despite the reason being very explicable – the ball had hit him on the hand, there was precious little he could do about it. Berra, 36 next month, was one of those Hearts players transformed after the (first) interval.
Scott Brown, whose appearance on the team-sheet was the first point of intrigue, had meant to be one of the central narratives. This proved to be the case in the first half, when he strolled through the 45 minutes along with his teammates while finding time to troll the likes of Andy Halliday and Steven Naismith. It was the sort of bullying performance he has perfected over the years, but which has been rarely seen in recent weeks.
In the second half, and for a while in extra time, it looked as though rookie keeper Conor Hazard would carry the can for throwing the cup away, however harsh that interpretation might have been. After all, he was only playing because two internationals ahead of him were deemed unfit for purpose.
Hazard looked like the loneliest man in Mount Florida as he waited for the spot-kicks to begin. He knew he was partly responsible for helping Hearts back into the game after twice looking all at sea at set-pieces. Substitute Josh Ginnelly converted after fellow sub Peter Haring’s header had been directed back across the goalmouth by Stephen Kingsley, who was such a scourge at the back post for Celtic. He had made it 2-2 after 66 minutes with Hazard also looking suspect.
It was interesting to note that no-one in his team seemed to direct any special words towards him before the penalties. He knew what he had to do in any case. Redeem himself. A penalty shootout offers a ‘keeper every chance to become a hero, no matter how troubled the preceding 120 minutes have been. And so it proved. At just 22-years-old, after only three Celtic first-team appearances, Hazard still had the presence of mind to console Craig Gordon first of all.
Hazard’s second of two penalty saves, from Craig Wighton, opened the way for Kristoffer Ajer to win the cup for Celtic. He did what his fellow centre half Brian Irvine did in 1990, for Aberdeen against Celtic, and slammed the ball into the net. Same end, too. The non-Celtic end. Not that it mattered in an empty stadium.
Some historical perspective was handy, since this final deserves to take its place among the greatest of all-time, the best, certainly, since 1991’s goalfest when Motherwell beat Dundee United 4-3. Talk about plot lines. We have not even mentioned that ‘Panenka’ from Odsonne Edouard that supposedly put Celtic on easy street and yet seemed to contribute as much as anything to Hearts’ sense of renewed purpose in the second-half.
Gordon, certainly, was fired up by the perceived disrespect shown towards him by his former teammate. He retrieved the ball from the back of his net and then threw it in the direction of Edouard.
Nothing Robbie Neilson could say at half-time could be as inspiring as simply plastering images of the Frenchman’s grinning face around the dressing-room, but whatever he came up with, it seemed to do the trick.
Hearts came so close to one of the great Scottish football comeback stories of all-time. Despite their current Championship status, they looked the team most likely to claim the trophy for long spells of a riveting contest.
It wasn’t to be but when this final is recalled in, say 100 years’ time, in newspaper features detailing that strange occasion when they held the Cup final at Christmas, they will be remembered. They will be remembered as having more than played their part.
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