A BATTLE of the current and former Hearts managers ended in Robbie Neilson’s favour as the Edinburgh club knocked Gary Locke’s Kilmarnock out of the League Cup.
Goals in the 90th and 92nd minutes – from Juanma and Sam Nicholson – ensured a dramatic ending at Rugby Park as Hearts overturned a 2-1 deficit to win 3-2 and take their place in the quarter-finals.
Two Josh Magennis goals looked sufficient for Kilmarnock to win this pulsating tie as Hearts headed for a fourth-successive defeat. They produced resilience not seen for several weeks to claw back the deficit and win the tie with seconds remaining as Nicholson prodded the ball home.
It was the first time Locke and Neilson had met since the latter took charge at Tynecastle 16 months ago. A damp evening at Rugby Park was brightened by the performances of Greg Kiltie, the Kilmarnock winger, and the finishing of Magennis. The striker’s goals either side of Alim Ozturk’s equaliser showed his prowess with both head and feet. Nontheless, the character of the Hearts players was the over-riding theme as they refused to accept a fourth defeat on the bounce.
Locke handed a debut to his new goalkeeping loanee, Mark Ridgers, one of five former Hearts players in his matchday squad. Jamie Hamill and Conrad Balatoni also started, with Jamie MacDonald and Scott Robinson on the home bench. Kevin McHattie couldn’t take part due to being cup-tied, while Dale Carrick remains injured.
The Belgian midfielder Arnaud Djoum was named amongst the Hearts substitutes after completing his move to Tynecastle yesterday morning. More significantly, Morgaro Gomis returned to the visitors’ team following the recent passing of his father. His presence stabilised midfield but he could only watch as his team fell behind to a header – not for the first time this season – on 13 minutes.
A fine Kilmarnock passing move began when Kallum Higginbotham’s volley switched the play from the left flank to Kiltie on the right. He laid the ball off to advancing full-back Mark O’Hara and sped off in behind Hearts left-back Igor Rossi. O’Hara’s through pass inside the Brazilian was perfectly weighted and Kiltie’s cross on the run was met by Magennis, who glanced his header away from Neil Alexander into the far corner of the net.
Kilmarnock were then forced into a change when Stuart Findlay went down following a challenge from Osman Sow. Findlay required a stretcher and Steven Smith took his place at left-back. Just as the home defence were re-adjusting, Nicholson sprinted in behind them to collect Sow’s pass but Ridgers collected his low shot comfortably.
The on-loan St Mirren goalkeeper was called upon again to hold Gomis’ attempt following a swift Hearts break on 38 minutes. However, there was no denying at the interval that the first half belonged to Kilmarnock. They looked hungrier, passed the ball crisply and had the best player on the pitch in Kiltie. He was giving Rossi a torrid time out wide with his pace and direct running, although the defender was guilty of repeatedly standing off his opponent.
Neilson introduced Jamie Walker and Juanma early in the second half hoping to inject more urgency into his side. Walker was making his 100th competitive Hearts appearance and his colleagues badly needed some of his creativity in the final third. A decent chance arrived when Prince Buaben slipped a pass to Sow entering the penalty area, although the Swede’s effort at goal was wayward and landed high in the stand.
Kilmarnock still looked the team most likely to score the game’s second goal as the hour mark passed. Whenever Hearts had possession their players were hunted down and given little space to breathe in midfield. In the middle of it all was Hamill, playing a very effective role as a sitting midfielder in front of the home defence.
Out wide, Kiltie and Tope Obadeyi worked the flanks well and kept the visiting full-backs well occupied. The Hearts wingers were, by contrast, largely being stifled by opposing full-backs O’Hara and Smith. Alexander did well to hold Smith’s free-kick following a foul by Prince Buaben. Hearts then came to life and pushed forward.
Sow was now playing just in behind Juanma and getting some joy running from deep. He wasn’t finding many breaks but tried to link up with team-mates to open up Kilmarnock’s rearguard. His back-heeled flick almost caught Ridgers out from a cross but the goalkeeper got down in time to stop the ball crossing his line.
The visitors’ pressure paid off with an equaliser on 74 minutes. Nicholson’s corner was cleared to the edge of the penalty area, where Ozturk struck it first time. The ball rolled through a collection of bodies without a touch and nestled in the corner of the net. Ozturk lay grounded, possibly contemplating extra-time. Five minutes later, Kilmarnock restored their advantage.
Again it was an excellent finish by Magennis. He controlled Higginbotham’s pass with his back to goal, held off an opponent before turning and rifling the ball low past Alexander from around 18 yards. Conceding so quickly after levelling the tie might have floored Hearts. However, they recovered to force a second equaliser with just a minute of normal time left.
Walker supplied a pinpoint cross from the right which Juanma glanced perfectly away from Ridgers and into the bottom corner. Extra-time looked absolutely certain at that stage, although Hearts were far from finished. They piled forward once more hoping to sneak a late winner and, when a chance fell to Juanma and he mis-hit the ball, Nicholson was on hand to prod it past Ridgers from close range.
The travelling fans were delirious at full-time. They knew their team hadn’t exactly scaled the heights in Ayrshire, but all that mattered was they were in the quarter-finals.
Kilmarnock (4-4-1-1): Ridgers; O’Hara, Ashcroft, Balatoni, Findlay (Smith 26); Kiltie (Boyd 84), Hamill, Slater, Obadeyi (Robinson 72); Higginbotham; Magennis. Unused subs: MacDonald, Splaine, McLean, Wilson.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander; Paterson, Ozturk, Augustyn, Rossi; Buaben, Gomis; King (Walker 51), Swanson (Juanma), Nicholson; Sow. Unused subs: Hamilton, Pallardo, Djoum, Reilly, McGhee.
Referee: Craig Thomson.