Driving through the sunny Sunday morning streets of Leith is a welcome invigoration after weeks of callous, unrelenting rain back in Essex. Appetite for the big match is whetted by passing the rugby ground of Stewart Melville’s Former Pupils and its outrageously audacious triple gabled stand. I am looking forward to this Scottish League Cup semi-final between Heart of Midlothian and Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The green and white of Hibernian’s Easter Road ground will temporarily give way to the maroon of their cross city rivals and the blue and red of the Caley Jags. The latter were formed from a 1994 amalgamation of Caledonian and Inverness Thistle, and the machinations around that leave the merged club regarded as something of a pariah in many quarters. My ticket sees me in the Caledonian end and I find their supporters in excited and expectant form despite the recent mini-revival of their world weary opponents.
Easter Road is one of those grounds that has undergone total modernisation in recent years which masks its not inconsiderable age as a sporting venue. Luckily the Hi-bees are a club well aware and proud of their heritage. History is all around the modern exterior and vomitories of this great stadium. The stand housing the Caley fans is known as the Famous Five stand in honour of Hibernian’s legendary forward line of Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond. Outside is a green plaque (naturally) telling the casual visitor and passer by that it’s been Hibs’ home since 1893. Prior to then the Hi-bees had played at several venues namely The Meadows (still a public open space), Hibernian Park and Drum Park. All three were close to the port town of Leith and in the early years the club drew great support from the Irish immigrant community. The club initially didn’t own the Easter Road ground and were reluctant to invest in it, even to the point that in 1902 they strongly considered upping sticks and relocating to Aberdeen!
Security of tenure was only obtained in 1922 and from then is where the development of Easter Road gained momentum, eventually peeking when a record gate of 65,860 crammed in for the derby with Hearts in February 1950. Something of a groundbreaking club Hibs were one of the first to install floodlights in Scotland, though sadly the iconic Miller and Stables pylons were lost in the modernisation programme. The club also were the first Scottish club to have the foresight to install undersoil heating, way back in 1980.
By 1994, with compliance to the Taylor Report an unavoidable requirement, the club actively sort relocation again. A new build in an area in Straiton or occupancy of the Meadowbank Stadium were looked into but eventually rejected in favour of a prohibitively expensive redevelopment of Easter Road. The two end stands are now the oldest structures being opened in 1995. These were followed in 2001 by the West Stand which houses all the facilities of the club and replaced the dearly loved old main stand. All three are double tiered stands which is in contrast to the 2010 built East stand which was purposely kept as a single tier to ape the rake of the old terrace that had stood there. The modern day capacity of a shade over 20,000 makes Easter Road an ideal neutral venue for semi-finals and the like.
The winner of today’s game was due to meet Aberdeen in the League Cup final at a Glasgow venue to be decided with Hampden being out of commission due to redevelopment work for the Commonwealth Games. The first half is a cagey affair not uncommon with these events and chances are few and far between. However, the second half is a complete contrast with end to end attacks and real excitement between the two sets of fans. It’s the Highlanders that take the lead through Greg Tansey, but the advantage is soon blown away by a superb double salvo within two minutes from Hearts’ skipper Jamie Hamill. The Highlanders chances are decreased when first Gary Warren and then Josh Meekings both get their marching orders, the second a being a straight red. It looks increasingly like the downtrodden side from the Gorgie Road will salvage some pride from a wretched and desperate campaign as the match edges into injury time. However, Caley sub Nick Ross clearly hasn’t read the romantic version of the script. Barely on the pitch five minutes he duly sends the Caley fans into ecstasy amid a cloud of blue smoke. Extra time passes quickly and it’s the numerically disadvantaged Caley that triumph in a tense penalty shoot out. A sad end to a heroic Hearts effort, which evidently drained every last ounce of energy out of them. A cracking match in a great stadium, perfect.
Scottish League Cup Semi Final – Saturday February 2nd 2014
Heart of Midlothian (0) 2 (Hamill 68,70)
Inverness Caledonian Thistle (1) 2 (Tansey 54, Ross 90)
After Extra Time, Inverness win 4-2 on penalties
Attendance: 12,762 (at Easter Road, Hibernian FC)
1. Jamie McDonald. 16. Brad McKay, 3. Kevin McHattie, 2. Jamie Hamill ©, 5. Dylan McGowan, 4. Danny Wilson, 17. David Smith, 8. Scott Robinson, 18. Dale Carrick, 12. Callum Paterson, 28. Sam Nicholson.
Subs: 7. Ryan Stevenson (for 17,46 mins), 9. Paul McCallum (for 5,64 mins), 13. Mark Ridgers, 20. Callum Tapping (for 28,85 mins), 30. Jordan McGhee
12. Dean Brill, 2. David Raven ©, 3. Graham Shinnie, 4. James Vincent, 5. Gary Warren, 6. Josh Meekings, 15. Marley Watkins, 16. Greg Tansey, 7. Billy McKay, 8. Ross Draper, 10. Aaron Doran.
Subs: 1. Ryan Esson, 11. Nick Ross (for 2,87 mins), 14. Danny Devine (for 10,69 mins), 18. Carl Tremarco (for 4,90 mins), 19. Danny Williams
Hearts: McCallum (saved), Carrick (scored), Hamill (saved), Robinson (scored)
Inverness: Shinnie (saved), McKay (scored), Ross (scored), Tansey (scored), Draper (scored)
Yellow Cards: MacDonald, McKay, Robinson and Paterson (Hearts), Shinnie, Warren, Watkins (Inverness)
Red Cards: Warren and Meekings (Inverness)