Hearts 3, Ross County 0; October 23, 2002
Hearts defender Steven Pressley demonstrated his ability to influence matters at the other end of the pitch with an assured penalty that broke down the stubborn challenge of Ross County as Hearts advanced into the quarter-finals of the CIS Cup.
The Hearts captain broke the deadlock 11 minutes into the second half of the tie, ensuring County would not repeat the elimination of Craig Levein’s men they had enacted at the same stage the previous year. The goal hastened the First Division side’s demise after long spells in which Hearts, dominant throughout, had seemed unable to convert their pressure.
Jean-Louis Valois added a second almost immediately, and Stephen Simmons shot home from 20 yards after a messy clearance from Neale Cooper’s defence with five minutes to spare. The third added a little aplomb to Hearts’ progression into the last eight.
Chris Robinson, the then chief executive, pointed out in the match programme that Scotland’s third most prestigious trophy had not resided in Gorgie since the 1960s, and only once had the tournament taken Hearts to Hampden since.
When Kevin McKenna rose to meet a tenth-minute corner from Valois just eight yards from goal, it ought to have been a routine manipulation of some terrible marking. The Canadian’s header, though, flicked the crossbar on its way over.
Hearts would rue that miss during a first half replete with more difficult, if uncomplicated chances. Janczyk saw a fierce left-foot volley saved by Tony Bullock, then Mark de Vries produced a powerless volley on the run after waiting for Simmons’ lofted through-ball to come down.
But Hearts did not lack urgency and, when Pressley raced out of the box and threaded the ball to Simmons in the centre circle, the teenager made his way determinedly to within shooting distance and fired the ball hard and low, just beyond Bullock’s right-hand post.
By the time a sprawling Gary Wales came mightily close with a long-range header, Hearts would have felt they had produced more than enough creative superiority and attacking intent to merit being in the lead. Yet the status quo survived the half.
Steven Hislop failed to get any weight behind his shot when County’s only notable chance of the first period arrived, before De Vries directed Valois’s near-post cross wide and Simmons saw a point-blank shot blocked defiantly by the Highlanders’ goalkeeper.
Unable to fashion a lead through open play, Hearts eventually did so from the less satisfying route of the penalty spot. De Vries held the ball up well with his back to goal and knocked it gently on for Wales, who had burst into the box from the right. The amount of contact made by Martin Canning as the striker flung himself down was not beyond dispute, but the defender made little complaint as John Rowbotham directed his finger towards the spot. Pressley struck the ball as close to the top left corner of the net as it is possible to do, and the favourites rode off into the distance.
Hearts all but formalised their quarter-final place by doubling their lead within three minutes.
Paul McMullan supplied the kind of curling low cross that defenders at the near post are never quite sure what to do with, and Brian Irvine decided not to intervene, watching aghast as Valois slid in to beat Bullock to the ball and direct it to his right from eight yards.
Then Simmons made it three to put the Jambos on easy street.
Hearts: McKenzie, Maybury, Pressley, McKenna, Webster, McMullan, Simmons, Janczyk, Valois, De Vries, Wales.