Robbie Neilson offered defiant support of his Hearts teenagers despite a heavy defeat and elimination from the Petrofac Training Cup last night.
Livingston scored three times in the final 15 minutes for a convincing win over a visiting team, with nine teenagers and eight debutants among the 14 who featured. Head coach Neilson insisted he was right to introduce so many youngsters at once because the experience will help their development.
Livingston fans chanted “baldy Mourinho” in recognition of their manager John McGlynn, who enjoyed a 4-1 win over the club which sacked him 18 months ago. His players were dynamic and creative but also strong and disciplined to progress to the tournament’s quarter-finals. Two goals from striker Jordan White and one apiece from substitutes Myles Hippolyte and David Robertson did the damage. Hearts’ reply was a 90th-minute own goal by Livingston’s Jason Talbot.
Despite the margin of defeat, Neilson remains unperturbed and explained that Hearts’ focus this season is on their league challenge. They viewed the Petrofac Training Cup as a chance to develop their young players, although some fans feel the competition should have got more priority. Teenagers Jordan McGhee (18), Gary Oliver (19), Liam Smith (18), Liam Gordon (18), Liam Henderson (17), Angus Beith (18), Robbie Buchanan (18), Alistair Roy (17) and Sean McKirdy (16) all featured in West Lothian. Seven of those made competitive debuts, along with goalkeeper Lee Hollis.
“The league is the priority for us,” said Neilson. “We saw the Petrofac Cup as a chance to develop our young players. Obviously you want to win every game you can but the only way you’re going to develop young players is to play them.
“It would have been easy for us to put out Sam Nicholson, Billy King, Prince Buaben, Morgaro Gomis, Danny Wilson and these guys. I made the decision that I wanted to let them develop in this tournament. By doing that, you take the risk of losing a game the way we did.
“I thought they handled the occasion pretty well. A number of them were making debuts for Hearts in front of nearly 4000 people. We did okay for the first 75 minutes. We lost the first goal from a set play which was always going to happen when you’ve got a young and inexperienced team. Other guys have a physical advantage and game knowledge and a bit of nous.
“We could have folded from there but the boys were strong and got themselves a foothold in the game. Once you lose the second goal it’s difficult to get back in it because there’s no real strength, maturity or experience there to guide them through. It was still a good workout and good experience for them. Three months ago, boys like Sean McKirdy, Alistair Roy and Liam Henderson were at school. The others who made their debuts have only been with the club full-time for a year. Although the scoreline wasn’t great, the club is about developing players. If I get an opportunity to play in a cup where I can do that, then I’ll do it.”
Not that Livingston fielded a team of hardened veterans. Far from it. Most of their starting line-up were in their early 20s. Danny Mullen is still only 19, as is the exciting-looking Hippolyte. What they had over Hearts was game experience, physical strength and no little pace going forward. Neilson named a team containing ten changes in all from Sunday’s 2-1 win over Hibs. Hollis became Hearts’ fourth debutant goalkeeper in three games whilst Bryn Halliwell, signed yesterday on an emergency four-week contract, was on the bench.
Livingston kept the same side after beating Cowdenbeath 2-1 on Saturday and made a purposeful start with a goal inside six minutes. A clearance was returned into the Hearts penalty area by defender Callum Fordyce and Gary Glen, the former Hearts striker, challenged for it with the emerging Hollis. The ball broke loose to White, who stroked it into the empty net from an acute angle.
Shots from Fordyce and Kyle Jacobs tested Hollis further as Livingston continued in the ascendancy. However, Hearts recovered with both Scott Robinson and Gordon stinging the palms of Livingston goalkeeper Darren Jamieson from distance. Then came a David Smith attempt which soared high.
Glen, who had injured his head colliding with Hollis at the goal, was substituted nine minutes from half-time. Robertson took his place and promptly wasted a decent chance to double Livingston’s advantage from Kyle Jacobs’ cross. Then Mullen’s deflected shot from 20 yards arced on to the goal-frame and wide. It was clear at the interval that Hearts needed more impetus to avoid an early exit from this cup competition.
Hollis was looking short of match practice having left Motherwell in May and only joined Hearts last Friday.
In front of him was an inexperienced defence which Livingston were exploiting regularly. Hollis failed to hold Declan Gallagher’s looping header from Burton O’Brien’s free-kick early in the second half. Fortunately for the goalkeeper, the resultant drop ball was scrambled wide by Mullen.
Hearts then began a period of intense pressure as they tried to force an equaliser. Gallagher’s timely tackle smothered a chance for substitute Buchanan from David Smith’s through ball. A series of crosses were dealt with by Livingston, who were by now looking vulnerable and playing on the counter-attack. It was from one of those sweeping forays into opposition territory that they killed this tie with a second goal 14 minutes from time. Kyle Jacobs sped down the right to deliver a precise cross for the unmarked White to head downwards into the net, leaving Hollis helpless.
Five minutes later came the best goal of the night. Hippolyte was given space to drive forward inside the Hearts half. After a couple of stepovers to outfox McGhee, he dispatched a crisp left-footed finish low into the corner of the net from 20 yards. It was no more than Livingston deserved, yet they weren’t finished. Hippolyte stroked a through ball to Robertson and he prodded a fourth goal beyond Hollis with a straightforward finish.
The final act of the night was Talbot inadvertently turning Henderson’s cross into his own net at the back post to give Hearts a consolation goal. However, there was no denying Livingston deserved to progress to today’s Petrofac Training Cup quarter-final draw. Hearts’ youngsters had learned a valuable lesson as experience told on the night.