Football: Hearts work at turning Cup whispers into roars

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The Independent Online
IN THE West End of Edinburgh they are beginning to talk about success where before they whispered.

For a generation, supporters of Heart of Midlothian have lived in hope of landing one of Scottish football's prizes; they have dreamed of new heroes to idolise and of an open-top bus picking its way through the crowd along Gorgie Road.

There was only black and white television the last time that happened. Hearts, it seems, have played for years in black and white, always losers with only flashes of colour in their seasons.

In 1986 they came within 15 minutes of a title win and they have lost a Scottish Cup final in every decade - in 1968, '76, '86 and '96 - since they last won the trophy in 1956.

This week as they sit on the verge of a possible league and Cup double, the majority of the supporters would hedge their bets and hope for one trophy.

Not so Jim Jefferies, the manager. "We're greedy. We want both," he said. "Getting one would be major progress for the club, but if you are in the hunt for two trophies you want to win them both."

Jefferies, who was a sturdy defender for Hearts in his playing days, has slowly produced a blend of useful exuberance allied with experience that has made Hearts as potent a force this season as either Celtic or Rangers. Seven of their players were recently called up for international duty for Scotland.

They face Falkirk at Ibrox today in the first of the weekend's Scottish Cup semi-finals with a collection of Scots, Frenchmen and an Austrian.

Having lost in the final two years ago, Hearts are hoping to go one step further, but they will not underestimate their First Division opponents, who were last year's beaten finalists.

"They have a lot of good, experienced players who have been in the Premier League and had a great Cup run last year," Jefferies said. "We'll be treating this just like a Premier League match."

Falkirk will revel in the underdog role they know so well. Alex Totten, their manager, watched them lift the Scottish Cup in 1957 and hopes to take the club he supported as a boy back to the final.

"Last season we beat Dunfermline, Raith and Celtic of the Premier Division," he said. "No one gave us a chance against Celtic in the semi-final, so we know cup-ties are all about what you do on the day."

Further motivation for the club will come from a balance sheet that shows debts of pounds 1.5m. Falkirk are in preliminary liquidation and it could be literally a final appearance in May.

Totten's team have responded well since the day they were given the option of taking their boots home and seeing the doors close behind them or fighting on. "The situation has given the players a stronger bond," he said.

Celtic go into tomorrow's game at Parkhead attempting to end a 73-year wait by beating Rangers in a Scottish Cup semi-final. The two have met only three times at this stage in the last 50 years, but the Ibrox club have won on each occasion.

There is little doubt that Rangers are hitting form at the right time, with Ally McCoist the prime motivator.

"Four or five weeks ago you could sense the boys were low in terms of morale, but we have now got ourselves together," he said. "We had a little bit of a get-together and a chat. But we are not the finished article yet. That's why Celtic have to be the favourites."

Walter Smith, the manager, suggested that there would be little psychological advantage to be gained in the first of a double header, with the two sides meeting in the league the following Sunday. "I don't think it makes much difference," he said. "I don't think it is wise to think too much about the next game because all you can do is focus on the day and try to be successful."

Wim Jansen, the Celtic coach, will be without Stephane Mahe, the French defender who will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, while Morten Wieghorst is suspended.

Having already lifted the Coca-Cola Cup, Celtic are on course for the treble. "We are now approaching the whole run-in and what is at the end of it and the rewards that are there are huge," midfielder Paul Lambert said.