DARREN MURRAY was purring with pride after his ultra-young Hearts Under-20s produced a mesmerising display against their more experienced Hibs counterparts in a 2-2 draw.
The match may have ended all square following a goal-crazy last few minutes, but Hearts, despite fielding a notably younger side than their city rivals at Newtongrange’s New Victoria Park, were, by some distance, the better team.
In the end, the Riccarton kids – including 15-year-old Sean McKirdy – needed a last-gasp header from Jordan McGhee to grab a point after two contentious late penalties, both scored by Ross Caldwell, had swung the game in Hibs’ favour following a stunning opener from man-of-the-match Sam Nicholson.
But Murray, Hearts’ player development manager, was in no mood to let the disappointment of not winning the game detract from his delight at the way his boys went about their business against a Hibs side containing first-team captain James McPake, as well as more established youngsters like Jordon Forster and Caldwell. Hearts’ most experienced player was Callum Tapping.
“I thought the young guys were exceptional,” said Murray. “We looked at the team sheet before the game and if you’re a betting man, all the money would have been on Hibs because they’re bigger, stronger, more powerful and older. But we’ve got a group of young boys who are coached to pass the ball and anyone at the game would see the difference between the teams.
“There was only one team trying to build things and pass it. Hibs worked hard in the second half to get their two penalties but it would have been an injustice if we hadn’t taken anything from the game. It would have been great to win because the players deserved it but, when you’re a youth coach, the performance is just as important as the result. We passed the ball around them at times – it was great to see. I’m over the moon with the boys.”
Nicholson, already on the fringes of the Hearts first team, was comfortably the liveliest player on show last night and his display must have catapulted him more prominently into the thoughts of Hearts manager Gary Locke and his assistant, Billy Brown, who were among the few hundred watching on from the sidelines.
“Sam is technically one of the best players I’ve worked with,” added Murray. “He works harder than most players with technical ability. His touch is fantastic, and his awareness and understanding of the game is first class. He’s a top player and his goal was fantastic.”
While Hearts played the sharper football, Hibs had the better of the chances in the first half, with Cody Mulhall and Jason Cummings, the Easter Road side’s best player, going close early on before Tapping saw a cross deflected on to the top of the bar at the other end.
There were plenty of half chances on offer for both sides, while Hibs pair Sam Stanton and Cummings spurned another couple of golden opportunities before the interval.
Hearts striker Gary Oliver headed a Nicholson cross against the underside of the bar straight after the restart and left-back Angus Beith pinged a free kick just over. At the other end, the ever-dangerous Cummings, an 18-year-old winger who has been on the bench for the first team in recent weeks, lobbed over the top after being released by a quick Caldwell throw-in.
The breakthrough eventually came in 63 minutes and what a magnificent goal it was, with Nicholson finishing off a devastating Hearts build-up by playing a rapid one-two with Oliver on the edge of the box and dispatching a crisp shot beyond the helpless Douglas Horne.
Adam King, the Hearts captain, almost killed Hibs off with a brilliant free kick which was destined for the top corner, but Horne got across to tip the ball behind. Hibs were given a lifeline with four minutes to go when they were awarded a penalty after McGhee kicked Forster in the head while trying to clear a corner. Hearts were aggrieved, feeling that Forster’s head was low, but Caldwell stepped up to level.
The Jambos were further incensed on the 90-minute mark as Beith was adjudged to have tripped Stanton as he burst into the box. It looked a soft award in real time, but once again Caldwell kept his cool to net what looked to be the winner.
Hearts weren’t finished, though, and McGhee, a late goal hero for the first team a few weeks ago, popped up to nod in a deserved equaliser deep into stoppage time.
James McDonaugh, Hibs’ head of academy coaching, had no complaints about the result, admitting Hearts were the better team. “When you go 2-1 up in the 90th minutes and don’t win the game, you’re always going to be disappointed, but I don’t think we deserved to win the game anyway,” he said. “I was disappointed with the performance – we didn’t show enough aggression on or off the ball. Having said that, although we were the lesser team on the night, I thought we still had the better chances.”
Hearts: Hamilton, L Smith, McGhee, King, Beith, Scott, Carrick, Tapping, Oliver, McKirdy (Henderson 85), Nicholson. Unused subs: Sneddon, Ford, Jones, Buchanan, Craigie, I Smith.
Hibs: Horne, Black, Crane, Stanton, Forster, McPake, Smith (McCaffrey 85), Paul (Beaton 72), Caldwell, Mulhall (Todd 64), Cummings. Unused subs: Perntreou, Gardiner, Baptie, Wilson.