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Early adversity can help produce fairy tale ending for Inverness

THE League Cup semi-final between Hearts and Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Easter Road today is an intriguing one.

Billy McKay has the potential to be a matchwinner for Inverness
Billy McKay has the potential to be a matchwinner for Inverness

People will say what an opportunity this is for Hearts with everything that's been going on at the club in recent months, but it is just as much of an opportunity for Inverness.

The Hearts squad will be thinking that the world's against them, that they are surrounded by adversity, and that it is time something went their way. But Inverness have their own back story and incentive, and it is really hard to separate the teams.

I do think the Highland club have been hard done by. The venue and 12.15pm kick-off time are a joke. Hearts have an advantage, because they're only travelling across Edinburgh and will have far more fans inside the stadium, so the Inverness players have a right to moan about it.

You can ask where else they would play the game, but in Edinburgh at that time? What do you think the Inverness fans think about that? It's poor. I know TV dictates, but surely it's better to have a look at who's in the semi-final and then make a decision that is fair to both clubs?

Hearts certainly have an unfair advantage. The crowd will have a huge influence, especially considering how vociferous the Tynecastle team's fans are.

I've played for clubs with smaller supports, clubs like St Johnstone, and I've played for teams with big supports, and what a difference it makes to the players when they are running out. With Aberdeen, we went to Falkirk in the cup and there were 3500 Aberdeen fans at Brockville.

They had to put the kick-off back and it was magnificent running out to such an impressive support. You can't beat having thousands of fans driving you on - it's the best feeling in the world.

It doesn't deflate the opposition, but a big backing is helpful, it drives you on when you need it. Inverness will have to try to feed off their sense of indignation. Every manager looks for an edge in any game, so John Hughes will be doing exactly that. He'll be telling his players they have a point to prove and the way to make that point is by getting to the final.

He will be mentioning it, no question. If the players are talking about it, then that comes from the manager. In the dressing room, the coaching staff will be saying, "what about that kick-off time and expecting our fans to be in Edinburgh by then?" This will have started when the draw was made. People might be thinking, "oh Hearts, they're not doing well, there's no pressure on them", but Gary Locke and Billy Brown will realise what a chance this is, especially since they have won their last two games. They're on a high going into it.

But you get the feeling this could be a pivotal game for John Hughes. Everybody probably expected Inverness's form to take a bit of a dip after Terry Butcher left for Hibernian and this game gives Yogi an opportunity to get the Inverness fans to really take to him and believe in him. He's not under pressure, but this would establish him at the club and give him a firm foundation to work from.

But I'll say this, there is more pressure on you when there's no Old Firm team in the last four of a cup, because you realise what a fantastic opportunity you have and you think, "we've got to win this, imagine we slip up now".

Is there a favourite for this semi-final? It's probably Inverness, because of where they are as a club - they're doing better that Hearts at the moment. Yet, Hearts are the bigger club and they're going to have the bigger support. Anybody going into a bookmakers wouldn't touch this game with a bargepole.

On the pitch, the vital aspect for Hearts is their defence. I watched them against Dundee United in the League Cup last season. They were down to 10 men and United were dominating, but Hearts were rock solid. That was a defence with the likes of Marius Zaliukas and Andy Webster, and they held on before winning on penalties. It's a younger, less experienced defence now, but if they can keep a solid line and not give away chances to Billy McKay, that will be key.

Inverness are solid at the back, so they won't worry about that, and if they can dominate in midfield, an other area in which Hearts lack a bit of experience, that's their best chance of going through. It's down to the two areas rather than individuals, although we know McKay for Inverness and Ryan Stevenson for Hearts can be matchwinners.

It would be a great story if Hearts got to a final this year given their circumstances. But it would be a fairy tale if Inverness reached their first cup final. I fancy Inverness to do it. If they can produce the kind of performance as they did against Aberdeen a couple of weeks ago then they should go through.

Hearts are dogged, but, putting my neck on the line I'd plump for the fairy tale with Inverness going through.

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