HEART-STOPPING, heart-breaking, it was all that and more – and Tynecastle hasn’t seen a night like it for years.
The home side, despite being ravaged by injury, pulled out all the stops to defeat their Bundesliga opponents. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg the hosts won the return 3-2, only to crash out on the away goals rule for the second time in four years.
Jim Jefferies’ men more than anyone deserved the label of bravehearts after their heroic performance against Stuttgart in the second leg of their UEFA Cup clash.
There was something very Scottish about the manner of the Jambos’ exit – overcoming adversity to put themselves within touching distance of the next round only to fall agonisingly short, most notably in the dying minutes when Gordan Petric found himself unmarked in the box with plenty of time to slot the ball past Timo Hildebrand, but instead blasted wildly over.
Lee Makel, Steve Fulton, Scott Severin, Robert Tomaschek and Gary Wales were all ruled out, while Gary McSwegan and Stephane Adam were only fit enough for a place on the bench. Gary Locke tried to battle through the pain of an injured ankle but lasted only 26 minutes. Petric was moved forward into an unaccustomed midfield role, while Kevin James was in the centre of defence and another fringe player, Andy Kirk, found himself parading down the left wing.
Jim Jefferies had called for the fans to be patient as his team tried to cancel out Stuttgart’s 1-0 advantage from the first leg but Steven Pressley sent the majority of the near-15,000 crowd wild when he latched onto a James flick from Gary Naysmith’s corner in the 16th minute.
Hearts almost grabbed another in 32 minutes when Robbie Neilson, Locke’s replacement, tested Hildebrand from distance. But the Gorgie faithful were silenced five minutes later when Jochen Seitz set up an equaliser, which had a degree of good fortune about it. The No. 17 ran from the half-way line before cutting inside Naysmith and his cross broke off Ahmed Salah Hosny into the path of Sean Dundee, who knocked the ball home at the near post.
Twelve minutes after the break a tough task became almost mission impossible when Marcelo Bordon rose above Pressley to knock home No. 2, the ball looking as if it came off his shoulder.
However, Hearts hit back from another set-piece on the hour mark, this time Petric heading home a Naysmith corner. Two goals were still required, though, and after Dundee and Krassimir Balakov came close, the game erupted in the 80th minute.
McSwegan, who had only just come on for Kirk, was hauled down by Silvio Meissner as he tried to turn his marker at the edge of the box after a long clearance upfield by Niemi. Thanks to Juanjo, who had drawn attention to the far-side assistant, referee Bruno Derrien awarded a penalty.
In the melee that followed, though, the Luxembourg whistler mistakenly red carded Pablo Thiam, only recognising his error after a further consultation with his fellow-official and promptly sending off the full-back. A full three minutes after the initial incident, Colin Cameron stepped up to send Hildebrand the wrong way and set up a thrilling finale.
With five minutes left, Stuttgart were reduced to nine men when Thomas Schneider received his second yellow card for scything down Naysmith. A nailbiting climax was therefore guaranteed and, 60 seconds after Meissner’s exit, came Petric’s miss.
Hearts: Niemi, Naysmith, James, Pressley, Murray, Kirk, Petric, Cameron, Locke, Juanjo, Flogel.