Hearts Under-20s enjoyed a positive introduction to the Irn-Bru Cup as they roared back from 2-0 down at the break to eliminate League Two side Stirling Albion.
Colts teams were invited into the Challenge Cup for the first time in an effort to revitalise a tournament which had become stagnant, and this topsy-turvy first-round tie certainly offered some welcome intrigue and competitive edge for those who braved the Stirlingshire drizzle.
At half-time it looked like Albion’s seasoned lower-league men were set to progress to the second round as they led courtesy of a double from Marc McKenzie, but Jon Daly’s young upstarts had other ideas and secured a hard-fought win with goals from Leon Jones, Ali Roy and Russell McLean.
“I’m very pleased with the boys,” said Daly. “We played some good stuff in the first half but gave away a couple of sloppy goals. At half-time we asked for a reaction and thankfully we managed to get two goals in the opening five minutes of the second half, which gave us a massive lift. Then we had a great finish from Russell to win it. Ali going on at half-time was a big factor for us – his pace gave us a lift.
“I think it’s a good move to have colts teams playing in this tournament because it gives the boys experience of playing against first-team senior pros. It’s a good lesson for the boys because it shows them the pace that first-team players play at. It maybe caught a few of our boys out at the start but once we got used to it and got our passing game going, I thought we were excellent.”
Canadian attacker Dario Zanatta was the only player in Jon Daly’s lineup who could boast notable first-team experience, although Daniel Baur, the captain, and Callumn Morrison had featured fleetingly in Robbie Neilson’s squad.
Stirling manager Stuart McLaren took the opportunity to field some of his fringe men, with several key players given the night off ahead of Saturday’s League Two opener away to Annan Athletic.
Hearts created the first opening of the game in the second minute when McLean volleyed over from close range after connecting with Morrison’s cross from the right. However, the young Jambos fell behind a minute later when Stirling winger McKenzie latched on to a long kick-out from goalkeeper Cammy Binnie wide on the right and lobbed Kelby Mason from the angle of the box.
Zanatta tried to spark Hearts into life in the 15th minute, but, after driving into the danger area, his shot from 25 yards out was easily gathered by Binnie.
Hearts thought they had equalised in the 18th minute when Zanatta slotted in from close range after Andy Irving’s shot broke into his path, but the linesman’s offside flag instantly halted the visitors’ celebrations. There was more frustration for the Canadian three minutes later when he just failed to connect with a dangerous delivery across the face of goal from Morrison.
At the other end, Mason had to throw himself to his right to tip behind a fizzing McKenzie strike from 25 yards out in the 31st minute. However, the Hearts keeper was unable to stop McKenzie doubling his tally two minutes later when the former Cowdenbeath and East Stirlingshire player nodded in a dangerous inswinging free-kick from Sam Mason.
Daly made a change at the interval as he sent on Roy, who featured briefly in the first team two years ago, in place of Bulgarian midfielder Alex Petkov. It was a substitution that was to reap instant rewards. Within two minutes of the restart, the visitors were back in the game when centre-back Jones powered in a header from Harry Paton’s corner. And Hearts drew level in the 50th minute when Roy rasped in an angled shot from ten yards out after being teed up by Zanatta following an incisive build-up.
Stirling tried to reassert themselves and threatened in the 55th minute when Alex Docherty saw a low strike from inside the box well saved by Mason. The Binos went close again when Jamie Mills curled a free-kick just over the bar from the edge of the box. But Hearts had looked the more dangerous side after the break and they edged ahead in the 66th minute when McLean curled a delightful strike from the edge of the box high past Binnie.
The Binos almost hit back three minutes later but Docherty’s header from Eddie Ferns’ cross was superbly saved by Mason. Roy, who had played a big part in his team’s second-half turnaround, then saw a powerful shot turned behind for a corner by Binnie. Zanatta thought he had added a fourth for Hearts with four minutes left after dancing into the danger area and rounding Binnie, but his effort was brilliantly knocked off the line by Mills.
Stirling Albion: Binnie, Mills, Burns, Smith, McKenzie (Henderson 75), Davidson (D Smith 60), Olanrewaju (Ferns 65), Davidson, Kavanagh, McCue, Docherty. Subs: Fallens, Verlaque, Mazel, McAllister.
Hearts: Mason, Godinho (Vladislav 78), Reid, Baur, Jones, Petkov (Roy 46), Morrison, Paton, McLean (Currie 90), Irving, Zanatta. Subs: I Smith, K Smith, Baxter.
Referee: Steven Reid.