Inverness Caledonian Thistle publicly announced themselves on the footballing world today by reaching their first major final after only 20 years of existence.
The near 2000 fans although outnumbered by almost 10-1 proclaimed the message loud and clear at Easter Road in the Sunshine on Leith after Hearts, the infamous 'always the bridesmaids' were beaten in the League Cup semi-final by nine man Inverness.
Ten buses and various other modes of transport were deployed as the Highland fans made their way to the 'neutral' venue of Easter Road once more, scene of last seasons dramatic shoot out disappointment. Not even a fire drill at Glasgow Central could halt the march as most travelled 500 miles, well nearer 400, to witness this historic day.
It was literally sunshine on Leith, and Yogi rang the changes with Richie Foran failing to make the bench. Back came Ross Draper, James Vincent, Marley Watkins and Greg Tansey to produce a powerful midfield. Dropping to the bench were Nick Ross, Carl Tremarco, Liam Polworth and Danny Williams along with Ryan Esson and Danny Devine.
Hearts sprung the bigger surprise with Ryan Stevenson only starting from the bench, which was odd considering they brought forward their game with St Mirren to free him from suspension. Loan signing Paul McCallum joined Stevenson on the bench and he is an unknown quantity.
Graham Shinnie captained the Highlanders onto the pitch with his counterpart Danny Wilson, and Raven, Warren and Draper tread a fine line as they are one booking away from missing a possible Cup Final appearance.
Inverness started on the front foot but Paterson burst forward only for Meekings to dispossess him in the box. Play raced to the other end and Draper spooned a great opportunity to open the scoring after McKay fed him in the box, Draper electing to prod the ball with his wrong foot and it went high over.
A nervy start by Hearts as the game settled into a midfield tussle. A tussle that Scott Robinson took too seriously as he clattered Billy McKay, Raven intervening and Robinson rightly booked.
Doran latched onto a throw-in but his shot from the edge of the box was dragged just wide of MacDonald's goal. Inverness were asserting themselves more on the game and a Doran corner was flicked goalwards by Tansey, but the keeper saved comfortably.
Some of the play was a bit frantic with Inverness looking the more comfortable on the ball and ahead on possession.
A Doran shot was blocked but the ball spun towards the crossbar, the keeper tipping it behind, eleven minutes gone. A re-taken corner gave Doran a second chance but Draper's header went a couple of yards wide.
Callum Paterson lay on the park as Inverness strode forward again and Watkins caused problems with a run deep into the box, but another effort was knocked wide, the Hearts fans not amused.
Hearts woke up and Carrick headed narrowly over after a good break on the right side and a McGowan cross. However, it was Inverness that were making most of the early running, Watkins being prominent in most forays forward.
Twenty minutes gone and Inverness forced the Hearts defence to scramble the ball out for a corner, Watkins close range overhead kick resulting in a sore head for Paterson and a free kick to Hearts. Our midfield still had a tight grip of the game at this point.
Some tough tackling going in and one or two players might well fall foul of the referee if not the physio. MacDonald once more has to rush to the edge of his box to thwart another Inverness attack and at the other end in Hearts first real sustained attack Brill had to watch a long cross sail narrowly over, but the Jambos continued to press before Shinnie cleared the danger.
Hearts were now seeing a bit more of the ball as the Inverness midfield lost their way slightly, but chances were at a premium.
Gary Warren took a sore one as Paterson went under him for a high ball, but he resumed after a couple of shakes of the head.
Inverness without a regular dead ball expert for a long time might still have to wait a while yet as Greg Tansey fluffed one from thirty yards.
Marley Watkins took the first Inverness yellow card as Nicholson sped forward, Brill easily gathering the ball and as a result, McKay was released by the keeper, bursting into the box but again closed down. Nicholson tested Brill at the other end, and the keeper parried it well, then Warren made sure he would miss a prospective final by earning a booking.
The game was more even now but Inverness were struggling to get behind the Hearts defence as easily as they did in the first quarter. Shinnie drew a corner but Doran easily found the keepers gloves.
Passes were now going astray as every ball was being keenly contested and a war of nutrition broke out before half time.
Brill took two goes to get his hands on a swinging free kick and as Inverness broke forward McKay squandered the best chance of the game hitting MacDonald from seven yards as he burst into the box. Should have scored with a bit more composure, but it was a great block by MacDonald and it was typical cup fare, the game raging from end to end.
Callum Paterson got a finger wagging from the ref just before half time, the word tousy springs to mind. Billy McKay almost broke the deadlock once more but his shot from the edge of the box rose too high when he had better options and the half drew to a close.
Would Inverness rue their ascendency not being capitalised on?
Half Time 0-0
A boost for Hearts as the second half got under way with Ryan Stevenson replacing David Smith. Game on!
Inverness were now shooting towards their home end.
A penalty shout was waived away as Inverness continued to take the game towards Hearts and a couple of Doran corners in quick succession followed, as did another penalty claim, Warren falling in the box. It was a replication of the first few minutes of the game as Inverness pushed forward in numbers.
Doran was almost on the end of some great interplay but the Hearts defence stood firm, just.
A raking Meekings ball picked out Watkins and the cross just fell behind Draper as Inverness continued to press.
Greg Tansey had made a hash of a free kick earlier, but when he latched onto another loose ball around the Hearts box, he absolutely lashed as ferocious a shot as you would see behind MacDonald to put Inverness in the driving seat for now, and not undeserved it has to say at this moment.
I'm not sure you will see a better strike anywhere this season, or maybe any other season for that matter.
MacKay was inches away from connecting to make it two nil, as was Vincent from the return ball, and Doran could have done better as they stretched the now overworked Jambos defence when he sped into the box, his shot straight at a grateful MacDonald.
Jeepers; we almost shot ourselves in the foot, but Brill made a tremendous reflex save to deny Paterson and Raven completed a headed clearance from Paterson's header. A let off and a warning as Hearts rolled up their sleeves and introduced unknown quantity Paul McCallum for McGowan.
Hearts upped the pace and got the break as Warren looked to be harshly sent off for giving away a free kick right on the edge of the box. McHattie shaped to take it but a massively deflected Hamill shot found the corner of a wrong footed Brill's net.
Devine then replaced Aaron Doran into central defence after the dismissal of Gary Warren as Hearts sensed blood. Another clumsy tackle gifted Hearts a second free kick and there was no dubiety about the quality of this free kick as Hamill found the top corner. Stunner!
Ten man Inverness looked shell shocked as that two goals in two minutes turned the game on it's head and MacDonald denied McKay as they pushed for an equaliser to take the game to extra time, and once more MacDonald saved superbly from a Meekings header from the corner.
Things were beginning to go Hearts way now as the burden of playing with ten men began to take it's toll. Tiring legs as the game entered the last fifteen minutes.
Shinnie was upended on the touchline and Tansey swung in a great ball, but it would not fall kindly to us and Hearts cleared.
Ten minutes to go and Hearts players were finding it easy to stay on the deck as time ebbed away.
Could Inverness muster one more charge as Tapping came on for Nicholson who left the arena on a stretcher.
Paterson burst forward from deep with a great run but his shot was deflected out for a corner to Hearts.
The final throw of the dice for Inverness came when Nick Ross replaced David Raven as they went for broke, Graeme Shinnie volleying one at MacDonald.
Five minutes of stoppage time were confirmed as a tiring Inverness gave their all but sadly it all went tits up when Meekings lost the ball then hacked down the Hearts player as he took the ball forward.
Nine men on the park and the game was all but over. Brill punted a long free kick forward but three Jambos smothered the ball, content to sit on it for a few seconds.
Unbelievably, just when you think it's all over, Nick Ross forces the ball over the line for his first and most important goal of the season. No more than Inverness deserved to be honest in the last minute of stoppage time, and seconds later the ref blew his peeper to send the tie into thirty minutes of extra time.
Absolute pandemonium in the Inverness end and delight for Nick Ross who started from the bench.
Ninety Minutes 2-2
Hearts still look the likeliest though with Inverness down to nine men now, and straight from the kick off Brill had to save smartly from a superb McCallum header to keep the game all square.
Carl Tremarco replaced Vincent at the start of extra time to put some fresh legs on the park.
Two penalty shouts in quick succession as Hearts superiority in numbers told on the proceedings, Inverness throwing bodies in the way as Hearts tried to force the ball home, clearance to anywhere the order of the day now. Inverness look like they would take a penalty shoot-out right now.
However it was now wave after wave of Maroon attacks as they tried to unsettle the makeshift Inverness defence due to the two sending off's, firing plenty of high balls into the box, Grant Mackay heading tamely over from a good position in the 99th minute.
Tapping almost bundled the ball home as a melee broke out in the Inverness six yard box before a free kick was awarded to the Inverness side.
A rare break forward with McKay feeding Ross who drew a free kick on the left. Tansey whipped it in and McKay tried to flick it on but MacDonald flopped on it to kill the ball.
Inverness were busting a gut now and managed to survive the first period of extra time, the dream is still on and Nick Ross, the saviour is linking well with McKay on the rare occasions that we do get forward.
Extra Time Half Time 2-2
A long, very long Tremarco throw-in caused panic in the Hearts box but they smuggled it clear and play raged to the other end, Brill collecting a hanging cross well.
Ross found time in the box to turn after some good build up play, but this time his shot was weak and into the arms of MacDonald. Moments later McKay brilliantly held the ball up and exchanged passes with Ross before the latter fired a cross in which the keeper gathered easily. It was however encouraging signs for nine man Inverness.
Down to the last ten minutes now and the players left on the park are running on empty.
John Beaton feeling sorry for Inverness and a couple of decisions go our way. Meh.
Billy McKay gets upended in the box and another melee ensues, but the ball is eventually driven harmlessly over, and at the other end Hearts head over to relieve the pressure on the Inverness defence.
Have Hearts been saving themselves for a late surge or have Inverness got something else up their sleeves?
Great defending by Tremarco as he mugs Hamill and McKay holds the ball up brilliantly again as Inverness continue to take the game to the eleven men. Suddenly Hearts break forward and McCallum should have scored but headed over from point blank range. That would surely have sealed it.
McKay again provides an outlet and wins a valuable time consuming throw-in for under pressure Inverness. It's backs to the wall stuff now and Brill comfortably gathers a cross and despite a lung bursting run from Shinnie the game draws to a close, and penalties are the order of the day........pulsating stuff........PHEW!
Full Time 120mins 2-2
So, it's penalties once more and the two most important men on the park will be Paul MacDonald and Dean Brill. The two keepers exchange pleasantries and Shinnie takes the first one, but keeper saves. My Heart cannae take this.
0-0 Shinnie miss, MacDonald guesses correct and makes the save.
0-0 McCallum miss, Brill does likewise.
0-1 Billy McKay scores, bottom corner, keeper AWOL
1-1 Carrick scores similar to McKay, opposite corner.
1-2 Nick Ross blasts home, tremendous strike from young Nick, chuffed.
1-2 Brill saves Hamill's mediocre shot, Karma!
1-3 Tansey blasts home as expected, super strike though, high and hard.
2-3 Robinson dribbles his one in, like our Billy's one.
2-4 Draper, cool as a cucumber slots the ball into the opposite corner, game over.
Pandemonium once more in the away end as Inverness defy the odds to secure their first ever major final appearance, Caley 100 grabbing a wonderful souvenir by collecting Dean Brill's glove as the big keeper throws them into the crowd.
Big Yogi has a grin the size of Leith Walk embedded on his dial and that will take some time to come off.
More reaction and video to follow, but for the moment huge congratulations to everybody, and a final against Aberdeen to come. Can it get any Better.
Brings a tear to yer eye.................Have an unofficial swatch at the penalty shootout
Date: 02.02.2014 Venue: Easter Road Stadium, Edinburgh Attendance: 12762
Referee: John Beaton
Lineup: MacDonald, Hamill, McHattie, Wilson, McGowan (McCallum 64), Robinson, Paterson, McKay, Smith (Stevenson 46), Carrick, Nicholson (Tapping 84)
Subs (not used): Ridgers, McGhee
Scorers: Hamill (67, 69)
Booked: Robinson (6), MacDonald (54), Stevenson (69), Paterson (103), McKay (116)
Sent Off: none
Inverness CT: 2
Lineup: Brill, Raven (Ross 87), Shinnie, Vincent (Tremarco 95), Warren, Meekings, Mckay, Draper, Doran (Devine 68), Watkins, Tansey
Subs (not used): Esson, Williams
Scorers: Tansey (54), Ross (90+4)
Booked: Watkins (32), Warren (34), Shinnie (90)
Sent Off: Warren (66), Meekings (90)
Inverness C.T. win 2-4 on pens after extra time