Cement dust still hovers in the air at the recently-built Balmoral Stadium, where Hearts made a reasonably concrete start to their Betfred League Cup campaign. Olly Lee and Steven MacLean scored their first competitive goals in maroon in a victory with a nervous ending at the new home of Highland League champions Cove Rangers.
It was an efficient if unspectacular beginning to Hearts’ season. Three more testing Betfred Cup Group C games lie in wait against Raith Rovers, Cowdenbeath and Inverness. This was a case of building some momentum against part-time opponents from the fifth tier of Scotland’s football pyramid.
The Edinburgh club dominated possession as expected and fashioned a multitude of scoring chances over the 90 minutes. Lee and MacLean converted their goals instinctively, one in each half, with Paul McManus reducing the deficit for Cove with 15 minutes to play. That ensured an needlessly worrying finish for Hearts. Profligacy in attack will be a slight concern for manager Craig Levein, although he will may forgive some ring-rustiness so early in the campaign.
The Balmoral Stadium might not be quite as grandiose as its royal namesake along the road, however, it will serve Cove’s needs for years to come. Seats in the miniature main stand gleamed and there was a general pristine feel to the astrotruf pitch and the surrounding enclosures. Hearts’ lack of a clinical edge at times took the shine off their performance before that late McManus goal.
History was in the making as this was the first competitive fixture at Cove Rangers’ new base. Three homeless years ended when they officially opened this 2600-capacity venue against Aberdeen on Sunday. That friendly was abandoned after a head injury to Cove midfielder Jordon Brown, who is thankfully recovering after time in hospital.
Hearts arrived with yet another new signing on board after the American trialist goalkeeper Kevin Silva agreed a two-year deal. He was on the substitutes’ bench as the 12th summer arrival at Tynecastle Park, seven of whom made their competitive debuts in Levein’s starting line-up. On-loan Steven Naismith missed out through suspension as he served the second of a two-game ban for a challenge on Celtic’s Scott Brown back in May.
Callumn Morrison, the 19-year-old, and Jake Mulraney started as Hearts’ wing-backs with Michael Smith amongst the subs and Ben Garuccio not selected. Levein’s plan was clearly to pin Cove back with plenty pace out wide, and Morrison regularly galloped forward down the right during the early stages.
It took just 11 minutes for the visitors to break the deadlock. Lee enjoyed plenty freedom in the advanced midfield role and was looking to shoot whenever possible given his penchant for long-range goals at previous club Luton Town. He was involved in a flowing passing move before finding the net. Centre-back Peter Haring stroked the ball forward to Lee, who played a crisp one-two with Kyle Lafferty on the edge of the Cove penalty box and drove the return ball low beyond goalkeeper Stuart McKenzie.
Mulraney quickly began rampaging down the left with direct running and dribbling. After Lafferty evaded the attentions of Darryn Kelly and sent a delivery across the face of goal, the Irishman hit a first-time effort with his left foot which rolled just wide of target. Moments later, Mulraney also came close from 30 yards.
MacLean was initially denied his first Hearts goal by an offside flag on the half-hour mark after McKenzie repelled Lafferty’s prodded attempt. The keeper then sprawled himself to save again from MacLean following yet another Mulraney run and cross towards the end of the first half. At that stage you had to feel sympathy for Cove’s right-back, Cameron Milne. He was being tortured by Mulraney’s pace as the wing-back repeatedly skinned him one-on-one.
Cove were competing well if not retaining possession of the ball to any great standard. Their best chance of the first period came when Mitch Megginson – top scorer last season with 52 goals – dispossessed Haring and ran at John Souttar. The Scot made a well-executed last-ditch tackle to stop his opponent running past him 40 yards out, with only goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal behind. Souttar then ventured up the other end and would have scored with a header had Kelly not cleared off his own goal line.
The second period began with Mulraney refusing to relent on Milne. He sprinted past the full-back with ease again only to see his eventual low effort blocked by McKenzie’s legs. Oliver Bozanic’s follow-up was stopped on the line by the Cove defender Ryan Strachan.
It was the Australian midfielder Bozanic who supplied the corner which led to Hearts’ much-anticipated second goal on 57 minutes. Haring rose to win the delivery with his head and nod the ball down into the six-yard area. MacLean was lurking with intent and poked a first-time finish into the net.
That should have been the end of the game as a contest. Lee somehow contrived not to score Hearts’ third moments later. From MacLean’s weighted through ball, the midfielder rounded MacKenze but fired the ball against the post rather than into the unguarded net.
Cove then succeeded in making the closing stages much more interesting. Megginson and Daniel Park exchanged passes before Park’s right-sided cross found McManus unmarked five yards from goal. He tapped the ball into an empty net, and suddenly there was work to do for Hearts to see out this tie and claim three group points.
Levein was seen barking at his players from the technical area and they regained their composure after an uneasy few minutes with Cove on the attack. The final whistle brought warm applause from the home support, recognising their team had given everything and come closer to matching their guests than perhaps many expected.
Cove Rangers (4-4-2): McKenzie; C Milne (Redford 75), Strachan, Kelly, H Milne; Park, Yule, Scully, Masson (J Smith 82); McManus, Megginson. Unused subs: Emmett, Gray, Watson, McCafferty.
Hearts (3-4-1-2): Zlamal; Haring, Souttar, Berra; Morrison, Burns, Bozanic, Mulraney (Ikpeazu 80); Lee (M Smith 62); Lafferty, MacLean (Irving 62). Unused subs: Silva, Hughes, Edwards, Keena.
Referee: N Walsh