O'Neill eyes artful Hartley, the life and soul of Hearts

Scottish Cup semi-finals
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The Independent Football

Paul Hartley is the sort of focused footballer who is capable of overcoming great odds to achieve his ambitions. One of them is to join Celtic. That could very easily ensure a wretched weekend for the supporters who may yet come to praise him.

The gifted midfielder sat in the stand last Saturday as his Hearts colleagues went to Parkhead and won 2-0 in the League. Now they have their best player free from suspension for today's rematch in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden Park.

Hartley jokes that he might not even get a place in John Robertson's side after that success in Celtic's backyard, but there is little chance of the Hearts manager leaving out his top scorer. Certainly not against Martin O'Neill, who tried to prise Hartley away in January.

The Celtic manager failed with two modest bids, and Hearts subsequently put a £1.2m price tag on Hartley. If he plays well today, then he may prove to O'Neill that he is worth the money, and who would bet against it? This is the man who made his Scotland debut just a fortnight ago at the age of 28, against Italy in the San Siro Stadium, no less.

"You can play at places like Ibrox and Parkhead, but I don't think you can go to any better place in the world to play than the San Siro," said Hartley. "The experience and the lift it gave me was unbelievable. To make your debut in that famous stadium was just overwhelming."

Hartley may have scored 14 goals this term but he has no inflated sense of his own worth - even if he is now trying to get Hearts to pay him the kind of wages a £1m player is supposed to be on - that would allow him to assume he will walk back into the team after that win at Parkhead.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," said Robertson on Friday, as he refused to reveal whether the former Millwall, Hiber-nian and St Johnstone playmaker would feature today.

"You always fear for your place when the team win," admitted Hartley. "I hate watching games but all credit to the team, it was an attacking team and it worked really well. The manager picks the team and it's up to him, but all credit to the boys. Every one of them was magnificent.

"We had a real belief and went there and had a go. It paid off and it could have been more than two goals. It was one of our best performances of the season. It gives the players a massive boost for the rest of the season."

Indeed, Hartley, who spent his childhood watching Celtic most weeks, believes that the rest of Scottish football has finally given itself a wake-up call when it comes to Celtic and Rangers.

"I don't think teams fear the Old Firm now," he stated. "I don't know if the other teams are getting better or the Old Firm are weakened, but we don't fear going to Ibrox or Parkhead any more.

"Towards the end of the season I think there are going to be more points dropped by both of them. They will have to play us, Hibernian and Aberdeen, and they know they will get a hard game from any of those teams."

While his manager may be coy about Hartley's return today, the Hearts captain has no doubt that the midfielder could grace any team. "It's not a surprise that there are several teams who want Paul, but hopefully he will stay with us," said Steven Pressley.

"He has obviously got a lot of publicity for the goals he's scored for us this season, but the players appreciate him more for the work he puts in when he does not have the ball. He's a grafter, with no airs or graces. His career has really taken off since he came to Hearts two years ago. He is a late developer, a bit like myself, but I watched himin Italy and it was like he had been with Scotland for years. He rose to the challenge."

Hartley, though, is eager for a new contract - his current one has just 14 months left to run - that reflects that his worth. "The club told Celtic a few months ago that they valued me at £1m, and that's a lot of money," said Hartley. "I don't know if any club would actually pay that for me. If they really want to keep me hopefully they will pull out all the stops. I'm not one of the top earners, but all I want is a fair deal."