Heart of Midlothian 1 Gretna 1: Heartbreak end to Gretna's fairytale

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The Independent Online

To Hearts, the spoils. To Gretna and the game, the glory. Much more of this and football is in serious danger of getting itself a good name.

The most remarkable Scottish season in living memory drew to a fitting close on Saturday when two of the clubs who have dominated the agenda for much of the campaign for different reasons provided a packed Hampden with an enthralling, dramatic and laudable Scottish Cup final that went all the way - and then some.

It took penalties to separate the Scottish Premier League runners-up from the champions of the country's third tier. Hearts scored all four of theirs. Gretna's Derek Townsley, a survivor from the days when they plied their trade in the English non-League and lost heroically to Bolton in the FA Cup, had his saved. Then Gavin Skelton, formerly of Workington and Carlisle but a star in this game, smacked his against the bar. "I never miss in training," he said later, with the most wry of smiles.

Sudden death, but oh so life-affirming. Hearts had their Cup, and Hampden rocked in a blizzard of ticker tape and song. But Gretna, to a man, including their denim-clad owner, Brooks Mileson, and their kilt-wearing manager, Rowan Alexander, stood shoulder to shoulder and applauded the victors throughout the presentations. And then they, the moral victors, the minnows who defied their status to make this a genuine and thrilling contest, took a stroll in the sun and bathed in the warm applause not only of their 12,000 fans but that of the 40,000 souls who had travelled from Edinburgh.

Hearts have endured a turbulent season: four managers, boardroom chaos, and more intrigue created by their Lithuanian owner, Vladimir Romanov, than you could find in a dozen spy novels. But in the league they split the Old Firm, earning Champions' League football, and at Hampden they threatened to split Greta apart in the opening half. They rattled the woodwork, forced a strong of fine saves, scuffed chances and then, through Rudi Skacel, their Czech winger who is now bound for England, probably Southampton, put them ahead. Would Gretna crumble? To paraphrase the chain-smoking, pony-tailed Mileson, who hails from a Wearside council estate, would they bloody heckaslike.

Alexander, a shrewd tactician as well as a man who breathes life into old or stuttering careers, made a tactical change, switched to 3-4-3. His men purred into gear and back into contention. They played with verve and nerve and no little skill, and were rewarded with a penalty, taken by Ryan McGuffie, once a hopeful at Newcastle. It was saved but he slammed home the rebound.

"I thought it was our day," Gretna's veteran midfielder, John O'Neil, said afterwards. "I thought it was our destiny." In the dying moments of normal time, he was not the only one. In the late-afternoon sunshine, during the fightback, with the final die still to be cast, it felt truly cinematic. No twist, by then, would have been too far-fetched. The combined casts of Escape to Victory, Gregory's Girl and Kes could have emerged from Gretna's dug-out without a raised eyebrow.

"People wrote us off but we showed we're a good side," McGuffie said.

He was right, as was Townsley, who said: "We had the belief, and we'll take that into Europe." Despite losing out in this match Gretna will be playing in the Uefa Cup next season.

In extra time, Skacel hit the post, Alan Main saved splendidly from Hearts' Paul Hartley, and then Hartley, at the death, was sent off for a second bookable offence. Hartley is Hearts' first-choice penalty taker but his captain, Steven "Elvis" Pressley, stepped up to slam in the opening spot-kick of the shoot-out. James Grady made it 1-1. Robbie Neilson, an unsung (and surely soon to be capped) defensive hero at Hearts this season, made it 2-1. Mark Birch hit home for 2-2. Skacel scored for 3-2, his last kick in a Hearts shirt. His vest read: "I will never forget. Thanks Jambos."

Then Townsley was denied. Michal Pospisil scored for 4-2, leaving Skelton with the pressure kick. He did not deserve to miss. For 120 minutes he had probed forward, tracked back, rifled shots at one end and blocked them at the other. But he hit the bar.

"I think we were lucky to win," said Hartley. "But the main thing is we're taking the trophy back with us," he added, relishing the prospect of parading it through the streets of Edinburgh yesterday. "We've got the right spirit at the club," said Pressley, who, more than any other individual, has epitomised the players' resolve in often trying circumstances this season. "We are delighted. But let's not forget the performance of Gretna - they were absolutely excellent."

Goals: Skacel (39) 1-0; McGuffie (76) 1-1.

Heart of Midlothian (4-4-2): Gordon; Neilson, Pressley, Tall, Fyssas; Cesnauskis (Mikoliunas, 86), Hartley, Aguiar (Brellier, 72), Skacel; Bednar (Pospisil, 70), Jankauskas. Substitutes not used: Banks (gk), Berra.

Gretna (3-5-2): Main; Birch, Innes, Townsley; McGuffie, Tosh, Nicholls (Graham, 55), O'Neil, Skelton; Grady, Deuchar (McQuilken, 103). Substitutes not used: Mathieson (gk), Berkeley, Henderson.

Referee: D McDonald (Scotland).

Booked: Hearts Fyssas, Skacel, Hartley; Gretna: Birch, Tosh. Sent off: Hearts Hartley.

Man of the match: Skelton.

Attendance: 51,232.

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