A frustrated Robbie Neilson was left cursing an “unacceptable” late collapse from Hearts last night after they suffered another demoralising early cup exit.
The Tynecastle side lost 3-2 away to St Johnstone in the last 16 of the Betfred Cup, allowing much of the optimism generated among supporters following Sunday’s rousing performance against Celtic to seep away.
Neilson had stated in the build-up to last night’s game that Hearts were determined to make an impact in the knockout competitions this season after making it to only one quarter-final in their four previous attempts at the Scottish Cup and League Cup. In mitigation, three of those four challenges were halted by Celtic, while city rivals Hibs stopped their progress in last season’s Scottish Cup at the last-16 stage.
Nonetheless, sections of the Hearts support are exasperated at their team’s inability to mount a serious challenge, particularly in the wake of the Europa League exit at the hands of Maltese side Birkirkara and at a time when Hibs have been basking in their own Scottish Cup success.
“We are devastated to go out of the cup at this stage because we wanted to do well in the cups this season,” said the head coach. “Everyone wants to progress in cups but we’ve had tough games. It’s been a while since we played a lower-league team, but we should have won this game. I felt we did enough, especially in the first 70 minutes. We were in control of the game after fighting back to go 2-1 up.”
Hearts trailed to a brilliant early strike from their former player, Danny Swanson. However, they turned the match on its head with two goals – from Callum Paterson and Jamie Walker – in the space of three minutes before the interval.
The Tynecastle looked in command of the tie in the early part of the second half, with subs Sam Nicholson and Tony Watt bringing fresh zest to their attack. However, St Johnstone progressed to a last-eight showdown with Aberdeen after some wretched defending allowed the Perth side a penalty, from which Swanson equalised, before Brad McKay, another former Jambo, headed the winner with ten minutes left.
“We were in full control of the game with 20 minutes to go,” said Neilson. “Watt and Nicholson had given us a real spark when they came on and we looked like we were going to get more goals. At that point, I was feeling confident because we were playing well.
“But then we fail to deal with a long ball from the goalkeeper by dropping too deep then not reacting to the knock-down, and they get a penalty. Then we didn’t deal with a corner. It’s not acceptable. We need to make sure we’re more aggressive in those areas.”
Neilson insists his devastated players simply have to find a way to rouse themselves for Saturday’s daunting trip to Pittodrie after suffering a third consecutive defeat in different competitions. “We’re still optimistic,” he said. “We’ve got a huge game against Aberdeen on Saturday and we need to perform in it.”
Hearts will find out today if Walker will be able to feature at Pittodrie. The attacker, who played an hour of last night’s match, faces a Scottish FA hearing after being cited for “simulation” against Celtic on Sunday.