On a day when their pre-season friendly against Dinamo Bucharest was accompanied by the constant sound of disco music blaring from the pitchside bar at The Pavilion in Leigh Sports Village, the positive vibes continued to emanate from this promising young Hearts team.
After an encouraging display in Thursday night’s defeat by Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad, Robbie Neilson’s side stepped things up a notch yesterday with an impressive vanquishing of the same Romanian outfit they had been thrashed 5-1 by last summer.
First-half goals from teenagers Sam Nicholson and Gary Oliver were ultimately enough to secure a morale-boosting victory for the Jambos as they rounded off a productive four-day stint in England’s north west.
“It’s been a great trip,” said Neilson. “We’ve been able to focus on things in double and triple sessions and really nail down what we’re trying to do. The players have been great at taking things on board and trying to implement them in games, which I think they did yesterday. They took another step on from the game on Thursday.”
Pre-season friendlies can often be bland, uneventful affairs. This one was anything but. Around 40 minutes before the match was due to start at the Leigh Harriers Athletics ground, the decision was taken to move the match a few minutes round the corner to The Pavilion – the venue for Thursday’s game – after concerns were raised about the state of a pitch which had been badly churned up by shot-putting.
Kick-off was delayed half an hour as a result and by the time it got under way, those in attendance were bathed in glorious sunshine, with the Hearts supporters – around 100 of them – in good voice and making use of the on-site bar from where the local disc jockey was supplying the tunes.
A small contingent of their Romanian counterparts brought a touch of edginess to the occasion, however, launching a beer tin on to the pitch just before half-time and then setting off fireworks at the end of the pitch being defended by the slightly-concerned Hearts goalkeeper Jack Hamilton. There were also allegations that they had stolen a Hearts flag before around eight of them were ejected by security.
This didn’t stop them hanging around outside the perimeter fence to watch most of the second half, sporadically threatening to climb back in. The madness soon spread to the Bucharest players, with captain Laurentiu Rus sent off for deliberately barging the English referee in frustration at a decision early in the second half.
There then ensued a lengthy stand-off as the Romanians tried to sneak a player on in place of their dismissed skipper, who by now had stopped in the mouth of the tunnel to have his picture taken with fans. The Hearts bench were willing to allow the match to remain 11 v 11, but the official was having none of it.
Despite the moments of mild mayhem, Hearts were able to return north with plenty to be encouraged about. As they had done on Thursday they fielded two separate teams in each half, with James Keatings and Kevin McHattie sitting out to rest knocks. Untried teenagers Liam Henderson, Liam Smith, Liam Gordon and Angus Beith were given further game time, with the last-named particularly impressive. “I though Angus was fantastic,” said Neilson. “He’s more of a central midfield player but he played slightly further out to the left and he was great.”
There were two trialists among the 22 who featured, with Lee Currie getting another 45 minutes to prove himself in the first half and Prince Buaben, the former Dundee United, Watford and Partick Thistle midfielder, getting his first chance to shine in the second half. Currie was tidy enough in midfield and tested the Romanian keeper with an excellent free-kick, while Buaben linked up well with his old Dundee United colleague Morgaro Gomis after the break and almost grabbed a goal with a 40-yard lob which sailed just over.
By that point, Hearts were already in front. Nicholson had got them off to a good start when he got in behind the Romanian defence and dinked a close-range effort over their keeper. Dinamo responded when Kamil Balinski tapped into an empty net in 14 minutes after Hearts were slow to react to a quick free-kick.
Oliver restored the Edinburgh side’s advantage when he lashed home an excellent strike from around 12 yards out after Jamie Walker’s powerful drive had been parried. Scott Robinson, who was sent off on Thursday, was carried off and taken to hospital after coming off worse in an innocuous-looking first-half challenge. It later emerged that he had not suffered serious damage. Despite Rus’ red card, Bucharest remained a threat in the second half, with Alim Ozturk and Danny Wilson doing well to keep them at bay.
At the other end, Dale Carrick spurned two good chances when clean through on goal to put daylight between the teams. Neilson was happy with the way his young team stood up to the streetwise Romanians, and also to the demands he has placed on them since they returned for pre-season. So far, so good for the new regime.
Hearts (first half): Hamilton, Paterson, McKay, McGhee, Gordon, Walker, Robinson (Beith 32), Currie, Nicholson, Oliver, King.
Hearts (second half): Alexander, L Smith, Ozturk, Wilson, Henderson, Holt, Buaben, Gomis, Beith, Smith, Carrick.
Dinamo Bucharest: Marc, Rus, Durimel, Popa, Fai, Boubacar, Barboianu, Elton, Matei, Lazar, Bilinski.