INVERNESS Caledonian Thistle seized a place in their first major cup final by producing the sort of effort that made Lazarus look half-hearted.
They looked dead and buried, 2-1 down and reduced to nine men as this compelling semi-final ticked into the fourth minute of stoppage time. Inverness did not seem to have time or enough players. What they did have was indefatigable spirit. Once they had equalised to give themselves another half an hour, this tie turned on its head. They delivered a glorious, dizzying triumph.
Hearts had neither the intelligence nor the ability to exploit the fact that Gary Warren and Josh Meekings were sent off. They have spent so many months as the underdogs that they looked utterly spooked by being cast as the favourites suddenly under pressure to see off a crippled opponent. At no point did Inverness have the demeanour of a team which thought it would lose, or was facing insurmountable odds. Once it went to penalties Dean Brill's saves from debutant Paul McCallum, and Hearts' man-of-the-match Jamie Hamill, proved decisive. Inverness lost last season's semi-final to Hearts on penalties; they were not to be denied.
This was John Hughes's finest moment so far as their manager. Inverness have struggled under him and in truth this game was unravelling too as the red cards flashed and Hearts went 2-1 up. He now has a cup final against Aberdeen on March 16 to savour. As he had the grace to acknowledge, though, it was his players' triumph. It would be stretching things to say this was an ugly duckling which turned into a swan, but what had been a lamentable game for 50 minutes erupted into a remarkable drama. Inverness went ahead then had a man sent off, Hearts equalised and went up 2-1, Inverness had another red card in what appeared to be the dying embers of the game, four minutes into stoppage time in fact, but they somehow squirted home an equaliser for 2-2 and extra time. There was the bizarre sight of Hearts players falling to the ground, looking broken and beaten, while the nine men celebrated their reprieve.
It had begun as a desperately poor game, hard to watch and, doubtless, hard to play in. Little distinguished the play and there was rarely a let-up from a scrappy, physical battle constantly interrupted by the referee's whistle for fouls. Both sides were guilty of sloppy passing and poor first touches, but Hearts were especially culpable and showed very little quality when they had the ball. Time and time again there were hoofed long clearances with the ball either going out of play or straight to an opponent. Two of the four goals were of far higher quality than the game really deserved. Eight minutes into the second half Inverness were pressing when the ball broke from Billy McKay to Greg Tansey, who rocketed a shot into the net from around 25 yards.
Inverness should have been ahead much earlier but could not capitalise on Hearts' carelessness. Ross Draper jabbed a shot wide after a move which began when Danny Wilson gave away the ball. Billy McKay got in behind Brad McKay, only to shoot too close to Jamie MacDonald, allowing the goalkeeper to make a terrific one-handed save. There were few Hearts chances. Dale Carrick put a header over and Callum Paterson had a couple of attempts. It was not enough.
Everything turned upside down with 25 minutes left. Warren had been booked for a cynical foul on Hamill in the first half - it meant he was suspended for the final whatever happened - and got a harsh second yellow card, and a red, for taking down Sam Nicholson on the edge of the box. Worse, for the Highlanders, Ryan Stevenson tapped the free-kick to Hamill and his low shot deflected off Draper and ran into the far corner. Suddenly, Hearts were electrified. Only three minutes later there was a re-enactment, this time producing a far better goal. Inverness conceded another free-kick at the edge of their box and Hamill swept a sumptuous right-foot shot into MacDonald's top-right corner.
Hearts should have been home and hosed, even more so when Meekings was given a straight red card after sticking out his leg to scythe down Scott Robinson. Their failure to see the job through was punished when James Vincent sent a ball through for Nick Ross deep, deep into stoppage time. The midfielder's first touch exposed Hearts and his persistence broke them when he squeezed the ball over the line at the second time of asking despite MacDonald's clawing attempt to save.
Extra time was exasperating for the Hearts support. Their young team's lack of quality was exposed. They were not streetwise enough to use the ball cleverly and stretch Inverness, substitute McCallum had a couple of headers he could not convert, and then the penalties finished them. Carrick and Robinson scored but McCallum and Hamill's attempts were saved. Graeme Shinnie was Inverness's only failure and McKay, Ross, Tansey and Draper held their nerve to put them through to face Aberdeen.