CRAIG Levein, the Hearts manager, last night lavished praise on his players for their outstanding performance against Celtic in the William Hill Scottish Cup final and vowed to return next season and attempt to win the first trophy of his career.

The Tynecastle club took the lead against their Parkhead rivals early in the second-half of the Hampden match when Ryan Edwards netted and their large support sensed an upset could be in the offing.

However, Celtic striker Odsonne Edouard equalised from the penalty spot 10 minutes later after being brought down by Zdenek Zlamal and then netted the winner with eight minutes of regulation time remaining.

But an emotional Levein stressed he was proud of how his charges, whose chances of defeating opponents who were bidding to record an unprecedented treble treble had been written off before kick-off, acquitted themselves throughout the 90 minutes.

“I’m terribly disappointed to end up on the losing side,” he said. I was very proud of the way the players performed, and I feel the pain they feel and the supporters feel.

“We defended extremely well the whole match, apart from a couple of occasions. The difficulty obviously is when you play against opposition who have very good players they tend to punish you.

“So the plan was to try, if possible, not to give up any opportunities and that was going particularly well. But it's very difficult for me to be critical of anybody.

“I thought they all tried ever so hard to implement the game plan. They did the running they needed to do, they showed good composure when we got into decent areas.

“I find it hard even sitting here talking about it, to be honest, but I feel extremely disappointed for everyone associated with the club."

Levein added: “I said to them before the game ‘don't have any regrets, don't wake up in the morning and think there was something you could have done better and want the game replayed to change it. I honestly don't think anyone will go to bed tonight thinking they let Hearts down.”

Asked if he thought Hearts had the beating of Celtic, Levein said: “I never think that in any match. Whenever there’s minutes on the clock, you can score a goal. The best I can say is I felt comfortable at points in the match, not in every minute, nowhere near it, but it was a bitter blow.

“I must congratulate Celtic. they've won the treble three times on the trot and it’s only right to mention that because it's the first time it's ever been done, so all credit to them.”

Levein, who gave 16-year-old Aaron Hickey a start, has come under pressure from Hearts following a disappointing run of results, but admitted he was keen to return and try to win silverware in the 2018/19 campaign.

“What encourages me more than anything else about the state of the club is the quality of the youngsters we’ve got,” he said.

“Aaron is just another one. Harry Cochrane didn’t start, Connor Smith has been excellent recently. It’s a privilege to be behind the scenes. I know what’s going on and the quality we’ve got. That keeps me going and makes me feel we can improve.

“I’m absolutely certain we can. That, and trying to win a bloody trophy, will bring me back next season.”