Inverness Caledonian Thistle's return journeys north from the central belt have become the stuff of legend, but having been the stop-off point for so many celebrations this season, the pub in Auchterarder last night must have seemed like the venue for a wake.
Terry Butcher's side played the whole of extra-time against 10 men following the dismissal of Scott Robinson and had three glaring opportunities to book a berth in the first major final in the club's history, but instead it was this callow young Hearts side who refused to read the script.
When Philip Roberts, on loan at Inverness from Arsenal, blazed over the bar and became the first man to miss from the spot, they had booked a place in a second consecutive Hampden showpiece.
As heart-breaking as this was for the Highland side, who had beaten Arbroath, Stenhousemuir and Rangers to get this far, Hearts had shown the same steely determination to ease through in a remarkably similar manner to their quarter-final against Dundee United. John McGlynn fielded seven under-21 players, including taking a gamble on Michael Ngoo, who arrived on loan from Liverpool just days earlier, as a lone striker.
The risk paid off with the gangly Londoner cancelling out Andrew Shinnie's opener in normal time and notching a nerveless penalty in the decider. Butcher had gone with the tried and tested, allowing his four advanced players Aaron Doran, Richie Foran, Andrew Shinnie and Billy McKay to wreak as much havoc as possible.
It made for a hugely enjoyable contest, even if Shinnie was the only one of the four who really delivered. Hearts thought they had a penalty early on through Jamie Walker, then Danny Wilson ventured forward to test Antonio Reguero with a shot which was probably going wide anyway, but the Highlanders, roared on by a 2000-strong travelling support, had travelled south with no inferiority complex.
With Hearts' makeshift backline getting its offside tactics all wrong, Shinnie played in McKay but the normally prolific Northern Irishman suffered a brain freeze as he prepared to finish and Jamie MacDonald guessed right. Referee Euan Norris had been responsible for a controversial penalty award to Hearts in last year's Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic, but any affection the Tynecastle outfit had for him was sorely tested here.
Warren and Ngoo were booked for an incident where both men appeared to kick at each other, and before long they must have felt Richie Foran should have been dismissed after following up a hugely soft early booking with a challenge more worthy of a caution. With Ngoo seeing a glancing header from a pinpoint Wilson cross rebound off the inside of the post, and McKay denying Foran a tap-in when he got his head to a Graeme Shinnie free-kick, it seemed incredible that half-time arrived with both goals intact, but it took just minutes for Inverness to rectify that situation.
A challenge on McKay presented the ball to Andrew Shinnie, and he showed calm amid the cacophany to roll his 13th of the season into MacDonald's bottom corner. This young Hearts side refused to bow to their fate, however, and an equaliser was coming by the time young Fraser Mullen levered a free-kick into the area, Wilson kept it alive, and Ngoo swivelled to fire in a left-foot volley. All in all, it was a reasonable contribution from the two players Hearts beat their registration embargo for.
The match changed again when Robinson was given a straight red for a lunge on Owain Tudur Jones, leaving his side shorthanded for the 13 minutes left of normal time. McGlynn was spoken to by the referee, then McKay somehow avoided a second booking for a shirt tug.
An extended period of squeaky- bum time would be required to settle this one. Arvydas Novikovas saw his nudged finish deflected wide, before substitute Shane Sutherland breached the Hearts backline again, but was too heavy with his pass, and the combined efforts of McKay and Shinnie were somehow unable to beat MacDonald, and then Andrew Shinnie's lunge sent the ball improbably over from close range. After nine immaculate penalties, Roberts condemned Inverness to their fate.
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