THIS was the stereotypical Scottish cup tie, pitching illustrious Premier League side against part-time First Divisioners in an unfashionable venue full of driving rain and howling winds. Welcome to Scotland, Paulo Sergio. We do things differently here.
This time last year, the Hearts manager was coaching Sporting Lisbon in the 50,000 capacity Estádio José Alvalade. He was doubtless bathed in sunshine too. Last night at Somerset Park would have been a culture shock to Sergio, although it could be argued that he adapted better than some of his players in the third round of the Scottish Communities League Cup, a competition Hearts have struggled in since last winning 49 years ago.
Hearts lost on penalties after a very evenly-balanced game that finished 1-1 after extra time, in which Scott Robinson opened the scoring before Marius Zaliukas slipped to present Ayr United’s Gareth Wardlaw with a straightforward equaliser. Eggert Jonsson had a second Hearts goal disallowed for handball and Ryan McGowan was denied an extra-time penalty following a challenge with Chris Smith.
Penalties, therefore, decided the outcome. Michael Moffat, Jonsson and James McKernon all scored, but then Danny Grainger blasted his effort straight at the Ayr goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert. Alan Trouten converted, and when Cuthbert saved Rudi Skacel’s shot it was left to the veteran Mark Roberts to become Ayr’s cup hero.
The subsequent pitch invasion conveyed the locals’ joy. Their club, however, has earned a reputation as giant-killers. Their last two league fixtures produced a 4-1 defeat at Morton and a 4-0 reverse at Partick Thistle but in cup competitions Ayr are fast becoming specialists. Inverness lost at Somerset Park in the previous round, and Hibs exited the Scottish Cup there earlier this year. Hearts are just the latest in a line of high-profile victims.
In Sergio’s defence, this is the first game of his stewardship where Hearts have been firmly expected to win and failed. Any criticism should therefore retain some perspective. The manager himself felt cheated by referee Iain Brines and his assistant, Tom Murphy, arguing that Jonsson’s 62nd-minute goal, which would have put Hearts 2-0 ahead, was legal. The Icelander bundled the ball home after an untidy scramble in the Ayr goalmouth. Brines initially awarded the goal but then consulted the linesman and changed his mind. He restarted play with a free-kick to Ayr and issued Jonsson with a yellow card for deliberate handball.
“We are disappointed because we had a lot of hopes in this competition. We wanted to go through but now we are out, it’s our reality and it’s football,” said Sergio. “I think it wasn’t a normal thing that happened last night. Hearts did what we had to do, we looked to score and we controlled the game.
“We were unlucky because we created chances to score and we didn’t score, but I remind you that we scored a clear second goal and it didn’t count. I don’t understand why. I saw the linesman running to the middle of the field giving the goal. When the game finished I asked the ref why the goal was no good. He said the linesman said it was a handball. If he sees a handball, why does he run to the middle of the field giving the goal? I can’t accept that and I can’t accept that a clear penalty against Ryan McGowan wasn’t given. That put us out of the cup.
“Eggert did nothing, he just put the ball in the net and everybody saw that. The linesman was running to the middle of the field, you can see that on TV. I’m very upset and I can’t accept something like that. The linesman was the first one to say that the goal was okay. I understand being a referee is not an easy thing to do, but for God’s sake.
“I’m just talking about the things that I see and what the ref told me. I can’t be punished for that. Something is wrong here.”
In a Hearts team containing eight changes from the weekend victory over St Mirren, there was no place for the former Ayr midfielder Ryan Stevenson. Sentiment obviously has no place in football for Sergio. Instead, Janos Balogh and Darren Barr received their first competitive outings under the Portuguese coach.
McGowan and John Sutton were also reinstated and it was the Australian’s 12th-minute cross which presented Hearts with their first scoring opportunity. Sutton met the delivery for a downward header which the Ayr goalkeeper Cuthbert did well to push for a corner.
Moffat’s attempt sailed over the visitors’ crossbar on 20 minutes as Ayr sought to assert themselves after a tentative opening period. They came even closer moments later when striker Wardlaw met Moffat’s cross, however his looped header landed on the roof of the net.
A swirling Ayrshire wind ensured crisp, passing football was often difficult. Even basic control tested the players whenever the ball dropped out of the air. Corners were especially difficult to defend, and Ayr came tantalisingly close to moving ahead from Michael McGowan’s flag kick as the half-hour approached. Edinburgh-born Eddie Malone met the delivery and, with Balogh poorly positioned, he headed wide from around five yards.
The second half began with a speculative effort by Wardlaw from the halfway line, which Balogh saw safely over his bar. If at that point the hosts were growing in confidence and perhaps contemplating a cup shock, they were forced into a temporary rethink when Robinson struck. Ayr’s clearance from Grainger’s corner landed at the feet of Robinson in space on the right side of the penalty box. He chested the ball down before driving it beyond Cuthbert into the corner of the net. It was just rewards for the young midfielder for an industrious display in which he never once wasted a pass.
Then came the moment that infuriated Sergio on 62 minutes, when Jonsson was adjudged to have forced the ball beyond McGowan with his hand on 62 minutes. At 1-0, it would be fair to assume that had the goal stood, Hearts would have been a sure bet for a berth in the quarter-finals.
As it was, calamity then came along. Zaliukas trotted across the field in possession 30 yards from goal and inexplicably lost his footing under no pressure. Wardlaw nipped in to collect the ball and promptly drove it low beyond the despairing dive of Balogh. As the Lithuanian looked to the heavens, Ayr celebrated with belief restored. David Templeton and Arvydas Novikovas both watched Cuthbert hold their attempts at goal, and the goalkeeper did likewise with Sutton’s angled header as Hearts sought to regain the advantage. But they were now playing into the stiff wind and need to play on the ground. Mehdi Taouil was introduced hoping to add some extra creativity to the visitors.
The final minutes of regulation time saw Ayr probing amid driving rain and a relentless wind. Balogh fisted Michael McGowan’s swerving corner out from his near post. The Hungarian then took two attempts to collect the same player’s cross from open play. At the end of 90 minutes there was nothing separating the teams.
Extra-time continued much in the same vein. McGowan appealed for a penalty when he fell in a challenge with Smith near the end of the first period. Skacel clipped substitute Andy Driver’s cross over the Ayr crossbar in the second. And so to penalties.
Two saves from Cuthbert made the difference, leaving Grainger and Skacel dejected. Roberts placed his kick high to Balogh’s left to complete an astonishing achievement for Ayr.
It was the striker’s goal which eliminated Hibs from the Scottish Cup and he now has a unique double over both Edinburgh clubs.
“It’s another good night for Ayr United and we’re delighted to be in the next round,” said Brian Reid, the Somerset Park manager. “The effort and commitment from a part-time squad was second to none. The only thing I said after the game was that if we took that into our league campaign then there wouldn’t be any problems and we wouldn’t be in that wee mini slump.
“Hopefully this result will kickstart us again because it shows what the team is capable of doing. We were without one of our main defenders and we lost John Robertson, another experienced one, during the match. It’s great experience for our younger players who worked hard.
“I don’t think it was a lucky victory because we had chances. Malone’s header went wide and Moffat ballooned one over the bar when he should have hit the target. We gave as good as we got in terrible conditions. We’ve now beaten Hearts, Inverness and Hibs, so we’re getting into a good habit. I’m sure any SPL clubs who draw us won’t take us lightly.”