Fortuitous penalty sees Hearts League Cup campaign off to the perfect start

Hearts saw competitive football return to Tynecastle last night as they held out against Inverness for a 1-0 win in the Betfred Cup. Jamie Mcintosh reports.

Robbie Neilson got his second spell at Hearts off to the best possible start with a win over Inverness, but could be concerned as to how the away side dominated the closing stages of the game in search of an equaliser.

Competitive football returned to Tynecastle for the first time in seven months last night, as Hearts and Inverness kicked off their Betfred Cup campaigns. Despite a strong showing from the away side, a Jamie Walker penalty in the 62nd minute saw them leave Edinburgh empty handed

Hearts’ last competitive game at Tynecastle was on 7th March, in a 1-1 draw with Motherwell in the Scottish Premiership.  Out of the 11 that started that match, only Craig Halkett started last night, highlighting just how much has changed at the club both on and off the pitch in the last seven months. 

There were competitive Hearts debuts for Mihai Popescu and Josh Ginnelly, as well as a welcome start for captain Steven Naismith. 

As for the visitors, there was a debut at right back for new signing Wallace Duffy, as well as starts for ex Hearts pair Mark Ridgers and Brad McKay.

The game got off to a frantic start, with both teams coming close in the opening five minutes.

Debutant Popescu carried the ball out of defence for Hearts before firing a pass into the feet of Jamie Walker, with the winger finding Ginnelly on the right – the debutant was, notably, always available in the first half. His cross for Craig Wighton saw Mark Ridgers called into action for the first time to deny the Hearts striker, before also making a save to stop Walker scoring with the follow up chance.

Inverness also looked dangerous in attack throughout the night and Shane Sutherland produced the perfect delivery for Daniel Mackay in the fifth minute, but somehow, Craig Gordon denied him from point blank range. 

It wasn’t to be the busiest of evenings for Gordon, however it was a vital early save from the keeper who is now in his second spell at Hearts, having made his debut for the club 18 years ago to the day.

You didn’t have to watch Hearts much last season to realise there was a real lack of width in the side. New manager Robbie Neilson wasted no time in addressing that issue with the signings of Elliott Frear and Josh Ginnelly. The latter of the two was seeing a lot of the ball and really had the better of his man throughout the first half. 

Captain Steven Naismith was as talkative as usual on the pitch, however a few poor passes early doors from the skipper highlighted he wasn’t quite at his best.

Inverness continued to impress going forward, with the pace of Sutherland and Miles Storey proving to be a real asset in the first half for the Highlanders. 

Gordon was called into action again after Storey won a freekick on the left in the 18th minute. Former Dundee United midfielder Scott Allardice delivered a wicked cross which almost went all the way in at the back post, having been missed by everyone, however Gordon was alert to gather. 

Good work again from Ginnelly just a minute later, as the debutant beat two men on the right-hand side, before cutting in and taking aim – however, it was a relatively comfortable save in the end for Ridgers.

Craig Wighton was leading the line in the absence of Liam Boyce in this match. The striker worked hard for his team, holding the ball up well as he struggled to get a real sight of goal throughout the evening.

In the 30th minute, Inverness captain Sean Welsh found himself unmarked in the penalty box after a throw in wasn’t cleared by Hearts, however he could only slice his volley harmlessly over the bar – a half chance for the visitors which possibly just fell to the wrong man. 

Best chance of the first half fell to Hearts in the 32nd minute, after a Ginnelly cross found Naismith, who’s shot was blocked. The rebound fell to Wighton, who slammed his effort off the bar from the edge of the six-yard box in what was an excellent opportunity for the striker to open his account for the season.

Inverness were dealt a blow just before half time, as Sutherland was forced off the pitch with a hamstring injury. Instead of a like-for-like replacement, Inverness boss John Robertson brought on a more physical striker in the form of former Hearts man, Nikolay Todorov.

After a goalless first half with chances fleeting, Hearts started the second half brightly and Ridgers was called into action again, this time denying Jamie Brandon after good work up Hearts’ right hand side.

Hearts were preparing to make a double change on the hour mark with the score line still goalless. Not for much longer however, as Josh Ginnelly fired a volley into the ground which bounced up and struck Cameron Harper on the arm. Referee Steven McLean showed no hesitation in pointing to the spot, despite Harper’s arm being tucked into his body. 

Jamie Walker scored in a friendly against Partick Thistle in his last match at Tynecastle and he stepped up and dispatched the penalty with considerable ease to give the home side a deserved lead in rather fortuitous circumstances.

Andy Halliday was then introduced for his Hearts debut alongside former Inverness winger Jordan Roberts.  

Inverness made a change shortly after – Wallace Duffy had a solid debut for the visitors and was replaced after 65 minutes by 16-year-old defender Lewis Hyde. 

Roberts’ introduction for the hosts did seem to change the attacks up from a Hearts perspective, as they were very one dimensional in the first half, with virtually everything going through Ginnelly on the right.

Roberts and Aidan White linked up well for the remaining half hour and the former managed to cut the ball back for Ginnelly in the 70th minute, who’s side foot effort flew over Ridgers’ goal.  

Halliday’s first involvement was a poor tackle on Thistle captain Welsh, a foul which he was lucky not to be booked for.

Both managers utilised the five-sub rule in the closing stages, with Stephen Kingsley coming on for his Hearts debut, alongside a return to competitive action for Peter Haring.

John Robertson rolled the dice for the final time, introducing former Hearts and Hibs forward James Keatings for the remaining ten minutes. 

Inverness struggled to create much in the second half, however in the closing stages, they had three great chances to force a penalty shootout. 

Todorov got in behind the Hearts centre backs in the 81st minute, however he could only fire over on the volley – a difficult chance for the striker, however it was the first one the visitors had really managed to muster up during the second half.

The second chance fell to Allardyce after an Inverness free kick was cleared to the edge of the box, but an excellent block from White saw his goal-bound effort travel no further.  

The third and final chance for the visitors again fell to Todorov. Storey got to the byline and hung it up perfectly at the back post. Todorov walks straight on to it but he can only side foot the ball wide – the chance Inverness were waiting for and the Bulgarian couldn’t convert. 

Substitute Euan Henderson should have wrapped it up in stoppage time for Hearts but couldn’t score from close range. After riding their luck in the final ten minutes, the final whistle would have been a relief for anyone of a maroon persuasion. 

Hearts rather stumbled over the line in the end. I wouldn’t say this is a wake-up call because Hearts did play well, but a strong performance from the visitors is just a reminder to Hearts that winning the title next season is going to be far from a foregone conclusion. 

After the match, Hearts Manager Robbie Neilson said there were lots of positives for his side to take from the game: 

“I thought there were periods in the game where we played really well and periods, we were a bit slack in, but that’s understandable when it’s the first competitive game back”. 

Hearts’ next group stage match is an away game against Cowdenbeath on Saturday. 

Hearts captain Steven Naismith was not picked for international duty unlike team-mates Liam Boyce and Michael Smith, however insists he will still be paying close attention to the match, as Scotland play Israel in a Euro 2020 Playoff match at Hampden on Thursday:

“I’ll be watching eagerly and hoping for a good performance but more importantly a win, which I’m very confident we will get.” 

Inverness manager John Robertson took plenty of positives from the game but was “disappointed” with referee Steven McLean explaining after the match that he feels the official “guessed” at the penalty decision which led to the winning goal.

“Hearts probably edged it on chances but in the last 10 minutes we had three glorious chances to equalise.” 

Robertson was forced to field a very young team due to injuries but was impressed with what he saw and said, “he couldn’t praise his young players enough”. 

Inverness will look to get their first win of the group stage in their next game against Cowdenbeath next Tuesday.

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