Hearts Under-20s endured a heartbreaking end to their season as they lost the SFA Youth Cup final to their Rangers counterparts following a truly remarkable penalty shoot-out in Paisley last night.
Backed by around 1000 Jambos and watched from the stand by the club’s new owner Ann Budge and director of football Craig Levein, Robbie Neilson’s youngsters led twice in the regulation 90 minutes, through Sam Nicholson and then Billy King, only to allow Gordon Durie’s impressive Rangers team back into the match on both occasions.
Gallingly for Hearts, the Glasgow side’s second equaliser – cheaply conceded – came when they were within just two minutes of winning the competition for the first time since 2000.
Rangers were roused by their late reprieve and had the better of an entertaining extra-time period in which the Hearts players appeared to wilt faster than their opponents. The compelling nature of a gruelling 120-minute battle wasn’t a patch on what was to unfold during a quite astonishing shoot-out, however.
Incredibly, each of the 22 players on the pitch ended up having to take a kick and every single shot was on target, albeit seven ended up being saved. In the end, with the shoot-out poised at 7-7 after Rangers’ Liam Kelly and Hearts’ Jordan Millar made three stops each, a closely-contested final was effectively settled by the kicks from the respective goalkeepers.
Kelly smashed his kick into the net with the aplomb of a striker before the Rangers keeper took his place between the sticks and saved from his Hearts counterpart Millar, who collapsed in a heap of desolation in the penalty area as the Ibrox side eventually clinched an 8-7 shoot-out victory at around 10.20pm.
It was cruel on 17-year-old Millar, who has just been released by the club and was only playing as a result of injuries to Jack Hamilton and Jamie Sneddon.
Neilson, taking charge of the 20s for the last time before stepping up to fulfil his new role as head coach, was philosophical in defeat. “Once it goes to penalties, it’s anybody’s game,” he said. “We’ve got to remember this is 20s football – the main thing is bringing players through, not winning trophies. I was pleased with them. They worked hard and dominated early on. But sometimes the pressure of leading in a cup final causes you to panic a bit and stop taking risks.
“They stopped doing what they’re good at, so hopefully this will be a wee lesson for them. Although it’s disappointing not to win, I was pleased with the performance for the first hour and also the learning curve that they’ve had.”
Hearts fielded a vastly more experienced side than their opponents, with the likes of Callum Paterson, Nicholson, Dale Carrick and King all starting and ensuring that Neilson’s side had more than 200 first-team appearances under their belts between them. By contrast, Rangers began with only two players – Charlie Telfer and Callum Gallagher – who had appeared for the senior side.
The Jambos settled best and looked marginally the more accomplished of the two throughout the first half. They made the breakthrough in 31 minutes when Nicholson met a Paterson cross at the far post and drilled home at the second attempt after his initial header had been scrambled out by Kelly.
The Riccarton youngsters almost doubled their lead early in the second half when Carrick moved a Paterson pass quickly into the path of Gary Oliver, but the striker drove into the side-netting from six yards out.
Rangers then drew level in 51 minutes when right-back Greg Pascazio arrived on the scene 20 yards out and lashed a loose ball through a cluster of bodies and beyond Millar, who got a touch on the ball but was unable to prevent it flying high into the net.
Hearts restored their advantage in 63 minutes when King smashed an effort high into the net from eight yards out after a scuffed attempt from Angus Beith sparked a frantic scramble in the Rangers box.
The Glasgow side were the better team for much of the second half, though, with the introduction of Barrie McKay and Jamie Burrows from the subs’ bench helping them seize the initiative. Despite this, it looked like Hearts would hold out for their fourth Youth Cup triumph and their first one in 14 years.
But, with just two minutes left, Millar misjudged a long ball forward from McKay and ran from his goal, allowing centre-back Craig Halkett, who had been sent into attack to try and rescue the game, to glance a header over the advancing keeper from just inside the box.
Hearts, with King already having been substituted and Nicholson going off in extra-time, were unable to assert themselves in the additional half-hour, although Carrick did go close to nicking a winner when he smacked a superb shot from the edge of the box against the outside of the post.
In the end, it came down to sudden death in the shoot-out to decide the destiny of the cup, with Kelly’s four saves from Jordan McGhee, Aaron Scott, Liam Gordon and Millar ensuring Rangers claimed the trophy for the first time since 2008.
Rngers: Kelly, Pascazio, Sinnamon, Halkett, Gasparotto, Telfer, Stoney (Burrows 51), Murdoch, Gallagher, Dykes (McKay 51), Ramsay (Roberts 74). Subs: Gibson, Roberts, McMinn.
Hearts: Millar, Paterson, L Smith, Gordon, McGhee, King (Buchanan 87), Beith, Scott, Nicholson (McKirdy 103), Carrick, Oliver. Subs: Mason, Simpson, Ford.
Ref: Willie Wilson