Hearts’ Under-20s saw their Irn-Bru Cup adventure halted at the second round by a wily Elgin City side. Shane Sutherland, the former Inverness forward, and on-loan Ross County striker Kyle Macleod scored the goals to put City comfortably into the third round with a 2-0 success.
The Moray club’s experience was evident throughout the evening, but the Riccarton academy side were far from disgraced. Several 17 and 18-year-olds travelled north with Jon Daly’s squad and posed plenty questions of their hosts. They fell short in physicality and didn’t quite have the streetwise approach of Elgin, which was to be expected.
Daly declared himself disappointed but satisfied with the competitive tie after much debate about inviting Premiership youth teams to compete in the revamped Challenge Cup. “I thought we gave away sloppy goals but overall it was a competitive game and I was really pleased with Kelby Mason in goal,” he said.
“You could see Elgin had that experience and cutting edge. They got ahead and didn’t let go of their lead. It was a good experience for our lads but we’re all disappointed we couldn’t get through. We worked hard enough in the game, although I thought their experience was obvious. Our boys competed well, though.”
Jim Weir, the Elgin coach, said: “We were up against an under-20s side that was really energetic and worked us really well. We limited them to few chances which is good defensively, but I felt we were slow getting out of the box. I didn’t think we were at our best, but sometimes changes to the team cause that.”
Temperatures touched 28C on a roasting hot Moray afternoon, but the air had cooled slightly by kick-off at Borough Briggs. The Hearts youths came from 2-0 down to beat Stirling Albion 3-2 in the previous round of this tournament and were looking to continue their momentum in the north.
They would have been mindful that Elgin boasted a home record of just two defeats in the last year – the strongest in League Two. City’s first two league fixtures this season had both yielded victories without a single goal conceded.
Wearing the club’s new yellow and pink “Rosebery” away kit, Hearts started with plenty zest. They linked play from midfield to attack with some quick and incisive one-touch passing through striker Russell McLean, which took them in behind the home defence on a couple of occasions.
The first real moment of consternation stemmed from Elgin’s first meaningful attack on ten minutes. Chris Dodd’s deep cross was punched clear by the Hearts goalkeeper Kelby Mason and Sutherland retrieved the ball near the edge of Mason’s penalty area. His turn and shot appeared to strike the visiting captain Daniel Baur on the arm, but referee Graham Beaton was impassive.
Mason then held a first-time attempt at goal from the Elgin midfielder Kieran Stewart as the home side began to take control. Minutes later, Macleod tried an imaginative overhead kick from Jamie Reid’s cross which landed on top of Mason’s net.
Mason produced a terrific save with his legs to stop Brian Cameron’s shot from close range on 23 minutes. An excellent passing move involving Cameron, Sutherland and McLeod had cut the Hearts defence open. Elgin’s experience and physical strength was giving the youngsters from Edinburgh a stern test, which of course is the whole point of playing under-20s in the Irn-Bru Cup.
Once again, Mason rescued his side with a brilliant one-handed save to stop Jamie Duff’s header from Reid’s cross. The keeper was powerless to prevent the opening goal moments later, though. Elgin capitalised ruthlessly to take the lead while Hearts centre-back Leon Jones was off receiving treatment. From Macleod’s headed knockdown, Sutherland found himself with enough time and space to slide a composed finish into the net from around eight yards.
Elgin had waited 34 minutes to break the deadlock and didn’t look like surrendering their lead thereafter. Mason was airborne again to push Marc Nicolson’s header round his right post seconds before the interval.
That denied City a certain second goal but merely delayed the inevitable. Eleven minutes into the second period, Macleod put the tie beyond Hearts. He produced a smooth first-time finish at the back post after Dodd’s corner travelled through.
Falling two goals behind seemed to help Hearts relax somewhat. As a result, they began to impose themselves more going forward. Winger Callumn Morrison dispatched an ambitious effort from 25 yards and substitute Alistair Roy really should have converted Harry Paton’s free-kick when it landed with him inside the six-yard area.
Paton – Hearts’ most influential midfielder – saw a shot cleared off the Elgin goal line by Nicolson with ten minutes remaining. Mason was under pressure during a goalmouth scramble and pushed substitute Ben Cullen’s close-range attempt on to his post in the dying minutes.
The tie finished in end-to-end fashion but, in keeping with the tournament sponsors, Elgin’s fizz took them through.
Elgin City (4-4-2): Mackay; Cooper, Duff, Nicolson, McPhee; Sutherland, Cameron, Stewart (Bruce 68), Dodd (Cullen 78); McLeod, Reid (Moore 68). Unused subs: Gunn, McLeish, Black.
Hearts U20s: (4-2-3-1): Mason; Godhino, Jones, Baur, Reid; Paton, Irving (Vladislav 59); Morrison, Currie, Zanatta (Roy 59); McLean (I Smith 75). Unused subs: Petkov, K Smith, Baxter.
Referee: Graham Beaton.