Hearts 3-0 East Fife: John Souttar returns in routine Jambos win
John Souttar returned from a six-month injury absence as Hearts defeated East Fife in the Betfred League Cup.
The 20-year-old centre-back played 45 minutes in his first competitive outing since rupturing his Achilles tendon in January at Celtic Park.
He eased himself through the first half despite the persistent rain as two goals from Kyle Lafferty and one from captain Christophe Berra gave Hearts their second successive victory in the Group B of the Betfred Cup. They now have a 100 per cent record in the competition following last Tuesday's 1-0 win at Elgin City.
Souttar managed 45 minutes for Hearts Under-20s in a midweek friendly, which was his first taste of football since suffering the injury. The quick promotion to first-team level was somewhat unexpected but underlined the speed of his recovery. He even managed an assist with the cross for Lafferty's opening goal as he frequently stepped out of the back line to take possession and dictate play.
Beside Souttar in central defence was another 20-year-old not seen for some time. Jordan McGhee was making his first Hearts appearance since May 2016 having spent last season on loan at Middlesbrough. He, Souttar and Berra made up the hosts' three-man central defence.
Black armbands were donned to mark the death of 92-year-old former Tynecastle stalwart Davie Laing, who made 311 appearances in maroon. East Fife were ravaged by injury for this section match and named only five substitutes. They started sluggishly and were fortunate not to find themselves 1-0 down on six minutes as Hearts right-back Michael Smith struck the post with an angled drive.
It was the first of a plethora of scoring opportunities for the home side. Lafferty, the midweek goalscorer, headed wide from six yards following Don Cowie's cross. There was a fortunate escape for Ian Cathro's team on 17 minutes when Berra's clearance was charged down by Ben Reilly. The ball ricocheted towards the top corner of Jack Hamilton's goal only to fly wide.
The East Fife goalkeeper, Ryan Goodfellow, produced an impressive save to his right to stop Esmael Goncalves' 25-yard effort. The Portuguese then nutmegged Paul Willis wide on the left, although his teasing low cross wasn't seized upon by a team-mate. It was only a matter of time until Hearts found the net.
On 22 minutes, Souttar edged forward to deliver a precise cross from the right which Lafferty headed home at the back post. It was a similar angle and finish to his goal against Elgin, taking the Northern Ireland forward's tally to two goals in two games for his new club.
He passed up the chance to make it three by heading Jamie Walker's cross wide moments later. Walker then stung the palms of Goodfellow, who was facing one-way traffic towards him as half-time neared. The second 45 minutes would be no different as the rain in Gorgie became torrential.
There was, of course, no main stand operating so it was an unusual backdrop of three stands at Tynecastle while the ground is modernised.
Souttar was substituted during the interval, with 17-year-old Bulgarian Alex Petkov taking over for his first-team debut. Worsening conditions forced mistakes from both sets of players, who were beginning to lose their footing on the sodden surface. The confusion led to Hamilton making an important intervention to parry Paul Willis' back-post header and deny the Fifers an equaliser.
Walker volleyed wide before Berra claimed his first goal since rejoining Hearts. He rose to head substitute Malaury Martin's corner over Goodfellow and effectively end this match as a contest. Walker out to have converted a third soon after from an exquisite lofted pass by Martin, but the winger was off balance and off target.
East Fife bizarrely enjoyed the best spell of the game after falling 2-0 behind. They put bodies and crosses into Hamilton's box and forced the keeper saves from Aaron Dunsmore and Chris Duggan. It was to no avail, however, as Hearts closed out the afternoon by maintaining their clean sheet.
They also added a third goal from the penalty spot. Ben Gordon received a second yellow card and a red for bringing down Goncalves, and Lafferty calmly stroked the ball into the net from 12 yards.
Hearts (3-4-2-1): Hamilton; McGhee, Souttar, Berra; M Smith, Cowie, Buaben, Grzelak; Walker, Goncalves; Lafferty.
46: Petkov for Souttar
62: Martin for Cowie
77: Stockton for Walker
Unused subs: Noring, Nowak, Brandon, Moore.
East Fife (4-5-1): Goodfellow; Dunsmore, Gordon, Watson, Docherty; Willis, Reilly, Slattery, Millar, Wilson; Duggan.
75: Flanagan for Reilly
Unused subs: Wilkie, Inglis, Mutch, Young.
Referee: Nick Walsh.