Auchinleck Talbot will proudly take their place alongside their hosts at Tynecastle in the Scottish Cup this Saturday, but visiting boss Tommy Sloan, while mindful of the romance of the occasion, is purely set on breaking Hearts.
A measure of the incongruity of the tie is served by the fact that, just two months ago, Talbot were lining up for a run-of-the-mill Scottish Junior Cup fixture at a modest council-run venue across the Capital. The visitors will, however, find the going against Hearts considerably tougher than during their 8-0 rout of Edinburgh City at Paties Road in Colinton.
“I wish it was like this every week,” said Sloan of the media attention that has surrounded the West Super League junior team’s build-up to a far bigger stage.
Rarely in their long, illustrious Scottish Cup history have Hearts faced a team from a place of such modest proportions. Auchinleck is home to just 3500 people, but Tynecastle will be braced for an influx of around half the population of the Ayrshire town on Saturday.
As a player, Sloan was part of a Queen of the South team that lost narrowly in two cup games against Celtic at Parkhead. He hopes Talbot, usually favourites entering a match but natural underdogs for Saturday’s fourth-round clash, can go one better and actually spring a surprise at Tynecastle.
“This is the most glamorous game the club’s been involved in, against the third-best side in Scotland. Everybody will write us off, but you never go into a game thinking you won’t get a result. If we manage to nick a goal, it will put Hearts under pressure. If Hearts score first, it’s over, but we need to try and get ourselves in front. I’m thinking it’s possible.
“We have got to try and score, but I am realistic enough to say Hearts will have the vast majority of possession – but you always have a chance.
“The difference here is we’re massive underdogs where normally we start favourites. We’re not wanting to roll over – we want to put on a performance. People say that we’ll want to just enjoy the occasion, but you only enjoy it if you do well.”
How does Sloan think his players will cope with the unusual tag of underdogs?
“We will not really know that until the day,” said Sloan. “There’s really no pressure on them, they’re not expected to win. Hearts are expected to win comfortably.
“From our point of view, it’s a bit different, but we’ll be up for it.”
With only one match played in the last five weeks, a 3-2 defeat at home to Arthurlie last weekend, Sloan admits his squad’s preparation for the match has not been ideal. He has also had to contend with a lack of training facilities to host his regular two sessions per week, and the closure of a synthetic pitch in nearby Irvine that regularly serves as a base on Tuesday and Thursday nights has meant Sloan and his men had to find a spare patch of grass in Auchinleck where they could practise drills this week before facing Hearts.
“The preparations have not been the greatest and we have not been playing many games recently. We’ll not be lacking fitness, just match practice through regular games. Realistically, Hearts will dominate possession, and we’ve been working without the ball. We’ve got to make the most of when we do have the ball on Saturday.
“Before last Saturday, we hadn’t played for four or five weeks. It was a bit disappointing, and we would have preferred a win in the run-up to such a big game.”
Sloan is sure that Hearts boss Paulo Sergio will field a strong line-up to guard against a second upset this season against relatively minor opposition. The Jambos were defeated by Talbot’s senior neighbours Ayr United in the Scottish Communities League Cup earlier this campaign, and Sloan reckons his Jambos counterpart Sergio will not risk another surprise reverse.
“I don’t think they’ll put out a second string. Will they throw kids in? I don’t know. But, I think the fact that Ayr United knocked them out the League Cup might mean that they will maybe make one or two changes but have more or less a full-strength side.”
Talbot have injury concerns over their Scotland amateur international centre half Gavin Collins, who has impressed this season but is currently struggling with a calf injury. Sloan was hoping to include Collins in the second training session of the week tonight in a bid to increase his player’s chances of making Saturday’s game, but the manager remains confident that his otherwise full-strength side possesses the talent to cause trouble for their SPL hosts. Craig Pettigrew, another current Scotland amateur player, is among Sloan’s arsenal.
“We’ve got talented players – no question about that – who can cause problems for Hearts, but it’s got to be about the team and believing in ourselves.
“We have individuals, like Craig, who can cause Hearts bother. In the league, we’ve not been as consistent as we’d have liked, but the younger lad Gordon Proctor, who is a left-sided defender, has come in from Montrose and done really well. Brian Young, who scored the winner in the Scottish Junior Cup final [against Musselburgh] last year, has flair and a lot of energy, and Keir Milliken, who we brought in from Irvine Meadow, has pace to burn up front.”
If Hearts are inclined to dismiss Sloan’s promise of Auchinleck’s stubborn resistance as mere pre-match mind games, the Jambos may benefit from a reminder of the gritty performance displayed by Talbot’s rivals Irvine Meadow across the city at Easter Road this time two years ago. Hibs eventually triumphed 3-0, but “Medda” managed to rain 11 shots on goal against their full-time opponents, an indicator that perhaps Sloan’s target of a 1-1 draw at Tynecastle to set up a replay at Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park may not be so far-fetched.