I’ve lived almost a literal stone’s throw from Easter Road for nearly 2 years, yet hadn’t been to a match there since a Scotland U-21 qualifier some time in 2010. Until today, when on a bit of a whim and in the knowledge that a ticket would only cost me 20 quid, I decided to head for the League Cup semi-final between Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Heart of Midlothian. Easter Road was neutral turf for the day, although the 12:15 kick-off made it rather easier for fans to get there from Gorgie than from Inverness.
I decided to take a seat in the Caley end, given my reasonable Highland connection and, as I thought at the time, there being more likelihood of getting a seat. It was clear come kick-off that I needn’t have had this fear – Easter Road was little over half full despite it being a mere 30 minute bus-ride away for the Hearts supporters. I’ve been to a few Caley matches before, all of them in Inverness, and I’ve never been overly impressed with their supporters. Caley Stadium is, from my experience, generally quiet with the odd lame chant. There were still a few lame chants (singing along to “Titanium” isn’t a chant for a start) but for what the Caley fans lacked in number they did make up for in volume.
To the match then, and the first half was a bit bilgey to say the least. Inverness probably had the better of the game, but save for Ross Draper skying it early on and Billy Mackay forcing an excellent save from Jamie Macdonald, they didn’t have a great deal to show for it. Caley were a little pedestrian, taking too long to play the right pass, particularly on the counter. Hearts came slowly into the game as the half wore on, but it was with some relief that the half-time whistle came.
Inverness manager John Hughes had clearly put a bit of a rocket up his side as they stormed their way through the opening 10 minutes of the second half. This came to a head in the 53rd minute when Hearts failed to clear their lines (having had a bit of a shout on an Aaron Doran handball) and the ball sat up invitingly for Greg Tansey. The man who returned to the shadow of the Kessock Bridge during the January transfer window absolutely smashed the ball past Jamie Macdonald for a Caley lead.
The lead was not to last too long. A foul by Warren on the edge of his own area on Hearts sub McCallum brought him a second yellow card and a set piece opportunity for Hearts. A cleverly worked free kick allowed Jamie Hamill to bag a deflected equaliser and send the majority Hearts crowd berserk.
Two minutes later and Hearts were ahead. Another foul on the edge of the area led to another free kick which Jamie Hamill this time dispatched beautifully into the top corner, Caley keeper Brill getting a touch on it but to no avail. Hearts, despite their apparent lack of experience on the park, had turned the game on its head.
Inverness’s mission then turned all the more difficult as the game entered stoppage time, Josh Meekings rather harshly being given a straight red card for a foul no more than 20 yards from the edge of his own penalty area. Having seen the highlights this evening on the telly, it was a yellow at worse. Despite being down to 9 men, however, Caley were not to be denied. In the fifth of five minutes of stoppage time allotted, a last-ditch punt into the area fell to Nicky Ross. His first effort was blocked; his second bobbled off Macdonald and into the net. Cue some mentalism in the Inverness end, closely followed by the realisation that their side would have to cope for another half an hour with 9 men on the park. The equaliser also saw the arrival of the now seemingly obligatory smoke grenade, with which I was not impressed.
Cope, though, they did. Hearts did present some issues for Inverness, particularly at the beginning and end of the half hour; Caley however did have chances of their own, with Billy Mackay performing heroically in the lone striker role. Despite that two-man advantage, Hearts could only really tap timidly on the door without really throwing enough at their diminished opponents. So then to penalties, with Graeme Shinnie and Paul McCallum’s spot-kicks being saved as both sides started nervously. Nicky Ross hit the pick of the penalties, his effort hammering its way into the top corner. Next up after Ross was Jamie Hamill, who made the slightly foolhardy choice of noising up the Caley fans before he hit his spot kick. Foolhardy, because he missed. Ross Draper was the man given the task of sending the 9 men to the final at a yet-to-be-identified venue – he made no mistake, and a few thousand Invernesians were delighted they’d got up early on a Sunday morning to go down the A9. Caley had performed heroically, though on listening to the Hearts fans chat on the way out they, understandably, could not fathom how their side had managed to throw the game away. It had been some match – £20 well spent, though I imagine not all matches at Easter Road are quite that exciting.
Inverness Caledonian Thistle 2-2 Heart of Midlothian (AET, Inverness won 4-2 on penalties) (Tansey, Ross; Hamill x2)