Whilst the rest of us spent an afternoon in the shops as our games fell by the wayside, the Daggers Diary team headed north to take in a couple of games in Scotland.
I know that I am quite lucky to be able to do what I do. Most weekends I attend a game, whether it be with the Daggers, or venturing slightly further afield. Take this weekend for example. A whole hour before the coach leaves Victoria Road for the Daggers trip to Rochdale, Dagenham Dan and I are sitting in Southend airport for the first time this month, waiting for a flight north to Edinburgh for a two game weekend.
Despite the fact that Scotland is next door (and for the moment) still part of the UK, this will be only my second football trip north, while this will be Dan’s first ever trip across the border. The only other game I have ventured to in Scotland was up in Inverness, for a comprehensive win against Dundee United, in September 2012. Hopefully our two games this weekend will be as good as that one.
Although we have done plenty of these trips, the early alarm is still a shock to the system, and when it shatters the silence at just after 4am, it is at a snail’s pace that I clamber out of my pit for our trip to Southend airport.
Our flight up is by not full, so we have plenty of space to spread out. We are also the first flight out, and leave roughly on time. With a flight time of an hour, it won’t be long before we are back on the ground, and in the Scottish capital.
Saturday 1st February 2014, Livingston v Queen of the South, Energy Assets Arena
Not only is this Dan’s first game in Scotland, but also his 1300th in total. It’s taken just over twenty-two years to get to this total, which works out at a fairly decent average number of games per year.
Having spent the morning at Edinburgh castle, we head out to Livingston around 1pm, for our first game of the weekend. The journey from Edinburgh is not too bad by train, with it taking only about twenty minutes to reach our destination station. The twenty-minute walk at the other end is thankfully completed without it raining.
As a club, Livingston FC didn’t exist twenty years ago. Ok, that isn’t quite true, as it was formerly Meadowbank Thistle (and previously Ferranti Thistle). Back in 1995, the club moved from the Meadowbank stadium in Edinburgh where they had been for twenty years, to the new town of Livingston, meaning not only a new stadium, but a change of name as well. The clubs history pages in their website makes it clear that the move was simply because the owner at the time, Bill Hunter, felt that there was limited potential sharing a City with Hibernian and Hearts, so the club was moved twenty miles down the road.
The early part of the 21st century were clearly good for the new club, finishing third in 2002, and winning the league cup two years later, but financial problems have beset the club in recent times. Now though, they appear to be stable and promotion back to the top flight of Scottish football must be the aim.
The game is entertaining, although we have to wait forty minutes for the first goal. A harmless looking ball is pumped into the middle of the Queen of the South penalty area, and there is a general sense of amazement and (almost) disbelief when the referee points to the penalty spot. Quite what it was for is anyone’s guess, as no one around seems to know. Marc McNulty is not going to question the decision though, and he slots the penalty home to leave the home side one up at the break.
By now, it is raining again, and the thought of that long walk back to the station is starting to come to the fore. It is cold as well, and we sneed more goals to at least take our minds off of he weather.
Unfortunately for the home team, their minds are clearly not on the game when the visitors equalize ten minutes into the second half. A free kick is delivered almost perfectly for Mark Durnan to score with a hear, although he marking from the home team was awful to say the least.
Twenty minutes or so later, Queens score the winner, and it is Derek Lyle who nets the final goal. With Livingston trying (and failing) to play offside, McHugh is able to turn and get his shot away. This bounces off the keeper, and Lyle is able to smash the ball past two defenders on the goal line. Having been the target by some of the younger home support while warming up, he is keen to remind them just who has scored, and is cautioned by the referee for his troubles.
Livingston look like they have run out of ideas, and really don’t trouble the Queens keeper for the remainder of the game, allowing the visitors to win 2-1. The rain is coming down quite nicely now, and so we start our walk back to Livingston North station in the downpour.
Sunday 2nd February 2014, Inverness Caledonian Thistle v Hearts, Easter Road
Following a night out in Edinburgh, Sunday dawned with a bright start and no rain, which was definitely a plus given our Saturday drenching. This time, our game would be a twenty minute walk from our hotel, at Easter Road, home of Hibernian. For Hearts, this would be more or less a home game, given that it would only be a few miles across the city, and they have been allocated three sides of the ground. For Inverness, the game meant an early morning start for the fleet of coaches carrying the Caley faithful towards the capital. While there is a decent turn out from the highlands, the Caley Thistle supporters are probably outnumbered by around five to one.
There is bright sunshine over Easter Road, and as the teams emerge, most in the Caley Thistle end are shielding their eyes from the sun. It soon disappears over the main stand, and as it does, the temperature drops, meaning that the extra layers put on are suddenly proving their worth.
Caley start the game well. Hearts may have the vast majority of the support, but Caley have the better of the opening twenty minutes, and create plenty of chances at the other end of the ground. The Hearts goalkeeper, Jamie MacDonald keeps the blue wave at bay, and slowly, Hearts start to come into the game.
Where in that first twenty minutes Caley get the break of the ball, now it is the all white Hearts team that start to get the breaks, and the ball is starting to spend a large amount of time in and around the Caley penalty area. Dean Brill in the Inverness goal is now the busier of the goalkeepers, and it is now looking like the missed chances early on might start to be important.
There are no goals by the interval, although Jamie Hamill is doing his best to become a late pantomime villain in the eyes of the Inverness faithful. There is an early booking for the central midfielder, and there are other challenges that could warrant a caution, but the referee seems determined to keep him on the pitch.
It is in the second half that an already decent game really comes alive. First up is the opening goal of the game. Now that the teams are attacking the goals that their fans are situated behind, it is Caley that have started the second half the stronger (much like the first), and they score the opener. Inverness have the ball on the left hand side, and there is a bit of fortune in the way the ball breaks to but there is nothing lucky about the shot from Greg Tansey which fairly flies into the net, beating McDonald on his right hand side. The so far vociferous Hearts fans are silenced, and the early morning start is suddenly feeling not so bad.
The game turns now it’s head just after the hour, and it is caused by a red card for Gary Warren. Already cautioned in the first half, he is adjudged to have committed another cautionable offence on the edge of his penalty area, and is shown a second yellow. He departs the pitch to an ovation from the Inverness fans, and the hope is that the team can hold out for the remainder of the game.
Which doesn’t happen, as Hearts score immediately from the free kick, and it is Hamill who gets it. A well worked move on the edge of the penalty area allows Hamill time to get his shot away. From the other end of the pitch, it doesn’t look too threatening, but it creeps in at the far post via the foot of what looks like a blue boot.
If the mood in the Inverness section is bad, it’s nothing to what happens just a few minutes later. Hearts once again win a free kick on the edge of the area, and Hamill scores again. Brill has left a giant gap for him to aim at, but it still a well taken free kick, and now they lead 2-1.
The ten men of Inverness are trying, but it just looks like the chance of going to a cup final is going to elude them once again. The sense of injustice is growing with every decision going in Hearts favour, but there is renewed hope when the fourth official holds up the board to signal that there will be five minutes to added time to be played.
That hope appears to evaporate about two minutes later. Inverness are attacking, but the ball is cleared from the Hearts penalty area. From our low vantage point, it doesn’t look like the foul is committed more than ten yards from the Hearts penalty area, but the referee is quite happy to brandish a second red card, for Josh Meekings. It is a crude looking challenge, but whether it is deserving of a red card is open to debate, depending on which side you support. It does though mean that the hope has almost entirely gone, and while no one is leaving, you can sense that it is going to be a long journey back to the highlands.
With nine players, attacking play is at a premium, and Hearts are looking to run down the clock in order to progress to the final. Songs of supports emanate from the back of the Inverness support, but there doesn’t appear to be the expectation of getting back into this one.
In the last-minute of stoppage time, the equalizer arrives. There hasn’t been much pressure from the team in blue, but now the ball falls to James Vincent, who clips the ball into Nick Ross. He has defenders converging on him, but somehow he escapes, although the ball somehow squirms wide of the post. Ross though is quick enough to react, and force the ball in off MacDonald, and somehow the dream is still alive.
When the whistle goes, we can all relax for a minute or two. It seems a mammoth task to hang on for the next thirty minutes of extra time, but once the game starts again, it is precisely what Inverness do. Hearts, as you would expect, have the majority of the game and the defending is at times all just a bit “last-ditch”, but there is no addition to the score, despite a chance near the end for McCallum which was headed over. Extra time finishes with the score at 2-2, and now we settle down for the misery of penalties.
Hearts had won at this stage against Inverness last year on penalties, although as we explained to Lynne and David in front of us, as England fans, we had plenty of experience with the misery of penalties.
First up was Graeme Shinnie, although his shot was well stopped. If the advantage was lost, it was immediately wrestled back when McCallum’s effort was saved. The next three are all scored, before Hamill stepped forward. Even allowing for bias, Hamill was everywhere in the game, scored twice, and was excellent if he was on your team. His penalty though was not good, and Brill pulled off a save to maintain the highlanders lead.
Now Inverness had a definite advantage. While the first few scores celebrated, by the time Scott Robinson scored his to make it 3-2 to Inverness, the writing appeared to be on the wall.
Which is how it turned out, when Ross Draper nonchalantly rolled his penalty home to clinch the shoot out. Somehow, Inverness had reached their first senior cup final, while the majority of the crowd made their way out of the stadium, stopping to appreciate the efforts of their teams.
Hearts played well, and certainly showed why their form has picked up of late. If they are to be relegated then it will be tough next year, but they will certainly fancy their chances if it does come to that, for they certainly contributed to an excellent and dramatic game. If I am honest, I didn’t know what to expect when we arrived for the game. Semi finals have a reputation for being fairly stale games, with both teams afraid to lose. Today though, both gave everything to achieve a result for their respective teams and fans. I won’t pretend to be neutral (Inverness are most definitely my Scottish team), but as long as Hearts can sort out the mess that they find themselves in at the moment, then they should have a decent future ahead of them.
For Inverness, a first final appearance since joining the Scottish league twenty years ago now beckons. They may have to go into that game (against Aberdeen) without both Warren and Meekings, but for now they should enjoy the moment. Whatever is thought about the game north of the border, this was an excellent game, and I was lucky to be there. It is days like these when you remember why you make the effort to travel to these games, and I can’t wait for my next trip back.