ROMANTIC as it would have been had Auchinleck Talbot earned a replay, Hearts deservedly progressed to the fifth round of the William Hill Scottish Cup. Paulo Sergio’s side have now won four and drawn one of their last five matches, conceding just one goal in the process. That didn’t stop some fans from jeering off the field even though their dominance of this tie was undeniable.
A 1-0 home win over an Ayrshire Junior club appears fragile and fraught, and towards the end it did get that way. Auchinleck were disciplined, resilient and stubborn until a defensive collision six minutes from time presented Gordon Smith with a straightforward chance to score the winning goal. Then Gordon Pope’s stoppage-time strike was disallowed for offside, denying Tommy Sloan and his team a massive cup shock against all odds in front of around 2000 visiting fans.
Sergio had a matter-of-fact look about him after the final whistle. He was satisfied at progressing and admitted he had taken risks with his team selection. Fraser Mullen, Hearts’ under-19 right-back, made his senior debut but had a first-half penalty saved. Smith, Jamie MacDonald, Darren Barr, Arvydas Novikovas and Andy Driver made rare starts, and Danny Grainger was reinstated earlier than expected after injury.
Taking all that into consideration, Sergio was unperturbed at the stuttery nature of the win. It should also be remembered that the Portuguese comes from a culture where domestic cup competitions are distinctly less important compared with league progress. To him, this was another welcome win to maintain recent momentum gained in the league. Nothing more.
“It was a typical cup game,” he said. “When you play against a smaller team, if you score early you can build a big result. If not, the other team starts believing. It brings them together and they fight not to lose a goal. Sometimes that puts you in trouble. But, if you talk about football, it was 90 minutes of Hearts trying to score.
“I was expecting our goal to come earlier. But you can’t lose a goal because that puts you out. Even if you draw, you have another game. We had to put our foot on the floor. Sometimes we took risks, like the changes I made. Barr came off (in the second half) and I put on another striker.
“I know sometimes I take my risks but I believe in our young players. I believed it was a game to give them a chance.
“If they can deal with a game like this, they can deal with an SPL game.
“Some of them did a great job, others didn’t do it so well but I still believe in them. They have to live this experience to get ready because the future of Hearts is with them. Step by step we’re gonna put them in place.
“Also, I have to congratulate our opponents.
“They are from a small division but they made it hard for us. I told the players before the game that people were expecting us to win 5-0 or 6-0. If you score early you can do it, but it didn’t happen for us.”
With 14 goal attempts to Talbot’s three, and 20 corners to the visitors’ three, Hearts were in complete control. Yet they made life difficult for themselves. Mullen was a strange choice to take the 19th-minute penalty after Novikovas was hauled down attempting to go past Pope. Mullen is a penalty expert for Hearts’ under-19 side but his strike, though powerful and accurate, was pushed away as it headed towards the bottom left-hand corner by Andrew Leishman, the Auchinleck goalkeeper.
That was the fourth successive penalty Hearts have failed to convert as Mullen followed in the footsteps of Ian Black, Eggert Jonsson and Jamie Hamill. It must be said the youngster recovered admirably to deliver an impressive performance, while Leishman also grew in strength and stature.
He repelled two efforts from Rudi Skacel either side of half-time, and Auchinleck might have retired at the interval with a one-goal advantage had Keir Milliken connected properly with Steven White’s lofted ball in behind the home defence. The hosts were unable to convert possession and chances into goals and consternation grew around Tynecastle.
With a replay at Rugby Park on Wednesday week looming, the breakthrough arrived by dint of a defensive mix-up. When Jordan Morton, another teenage debutant who replaced the toiling Grainger at half-time, hoisted his delivery towards the Auchinleck penalty box on 84 minutes, Leishman clashed with team-mate Bryan Slavin in the air. The ball fell perfectly for Smith to roll it into the unguarded net.
But there was still a heart-stopping moment to come in stoppage time. Ricky Robb’s lofted pass found Pope one-on-one with MacDonald and the home defence posted missing. The full-back calmly slotted the ball into the net and ran to take the acclaim from the Auchinleck faithful. The assistant referee’s flag curtailed his celebrations, and with that Talbot’s Scottish Cup campaign was over. To compound their frustration, television pictures later proved Pope was onside. The chance arrived during eight minutes of injury-time, largely attributable to an injury to Barr midway through the second half. It took paramedics fully five minutes to remove the defender from the field on a stretcher with his neck in a brace following an aerial collision. Gary Glen took his place as Hearts chased a breakthrough and Ian Black deputised at centre-back. Sergio said afterwards that Barr’s problem was less serious than initially feared.
“Darren has stitches in the head and he doesn’t know if he is in Scotland or Portugal,” he said. “He doesn’t know where he is but we don’t think it is anything serious. Grainger is also not so serious.”
In the Auchinleck camp, the overriding feeling was of pride at holding an SPL side at bay for so long. “I’m really proud of our performance, although it’s not surprising with this group of players,” said manager Tommy Sloan. “We’ve had success at our own level over the last few years and they’ve proved they can raise their game to a great standard.
“Our goalkeeper had five or six saves. It was a pity the way we lost the goal but there’s no blame on his part. He’s 23 and never had any involvement in senior football. He has a huge presence and he kicks the ball well. He’ll get better with time. We needed him to have a good game and he did. We welcome any interest in him because we have a lot of players who could play in the bottom two leagues in Scotland, but a lot of them wouldn’t move there. I’ve always said we’d do well in the bottom two divisions so maybe we proved a point.”
Pope felt his “goal” was wrongly disallowed and consequently left Tynecastle harbouring a sense of frustration added to his pride at Auchinleck’s display. “I felt I was onside,” he said. “I tried to keep in line. I was in line with Andy Webster. When the ball was played over, I put it in the net and ran away celebrating. The first thing that went through my mind was ‘replay’. Then I turned round and my heart sank when I saw the flag. We were told Sky Sports would be at Rugby Park for the replay so it was really disappointing.
“I thought Hearts were vulnerable at the back, especially when Barr went off and Black was at centre-back. Everybody’s happy with how we played, although we’re still gutted we didn’t get a draw. After losing 1-0 at Hearts, the third biggest team in Scotland, I don’t think there was much of a difference in standard. We have players who could step up, definitely.”