PENALTIES seem to be Hearts’ favoured method for progressing in the League Cup. Excluding last season’s final, their last four ties in the competition have ended with victory after a shoot-out.
Last night they were pushed to the absolute limit by an excellent Queen of the South team, who belied their Championship status by taking charge of this third-round tie. They passed and moved, attacked with pace and scored three well-taken goals.
Hearts went ahead three times – through Kevin McHattie, a Jamie Hamill penalty and Danny Wilson – but conceded three equalisers to Ryan McGuffie, Michael Paton and Chris Higgins throughout 120 minutes of open play. The final goal from Higgins arrived just four minutes from the end of extra-time in a thoroughly enthralling cup match.
“I’m not sure I can handle much more of that,” said the Hearts manager Gary Locke after Dale Carrick’s winning penalty secured a 4-2 success in the shoot-out. “Credit to the players again, they’re giving us everything. I’d like to have seen us defend a bit better but that’s something you can’t accuse us of too much this season. Apart from the weekend against Ross County, we’ve defended reasonably well.
“I think you could see a wee bit of naivety from us but I’ve got nothing but praise for the boys. They’ve worked their socks off again and the main thing in cup competitions is getting to the next round. We’re there so we’re delighted.
“Penalties aren’t great for the heart. It was always going to be a difficult game. I’ve seen Queen of the South and they have a lot of boys who have been around and who are good, experienced players. Jim McIntyre has them playing really well.
“We scored three goals at home so you’re thinking it should be comfortable. We need to do a little bit better defensively but, in the main, we’re just delighted to be through.”
Jordan McGhee, Dylan McGowan, Billy King and Carrick all scored their penalties for Hearts, although Jamie Hamill sent his over the crossbar. Derek Lyle and Kevin Dzierzawski converted for Queen of the South, but Chris Mitchell struck the goal frame and Jamie MacDonald saved from Michael Paton.
McIntyre could only lament a lack of good fortune in the end. “We went behind three times and just kept at it,” he said. “I thought we passed the ball extremely well, created good scoring opportunities. We just needed to be a bit more ruthless. You want to try and create an atmosphere by playing well and putting Hearts under pressure.
“I don’t think their penalty was a penalty. I don’t think the ball was out of play at their third goal and my defender is saying it’s not a corner either. They were disappointing things but if we talk about those decisions it takes a lot away from the game. I thought we were excellent.
“You’ve got to credit Hearts. They were ruthless when they got their opportunities. When it goes to penalties it’s always a lottery. We’ve got to look at how well we performed.”
Queen of the South’s goalkeeper Calum Antell produced the game’s first save from Callum Paterson before McHattie lashed the opening goal. The full-back charged in front of McGuffie to take a bouncing ball at the edge of the penalty area and dispatch his finish low into the visitors’ net.
If McGuffie was feeling guilty for dithering, he atoned five minutes later with the equaliser. He powered a free header at MacDonald from Ian McShane’s corner and, although the goalkeeper parried the ball, McGuffie reacted first to convert.
In what was developing into an open game of football, Queen of the South should have moved ahead in the 34th minute. Hamill slid into a tackle on the edge of Hearts’ penalty area but inadvertently forced the ball through to Derek Lyle. Seven yards out, and with no marker in attendance, the striker somehow drove the ball over the crossbar for a glaring miss.
Hearts looked slightly unsettled at half-time. Young Gary Oliver, making his first senior start, had shown excellent ball control, movement and link-up play in attack. Nonetheless, the better passing moves belonged to Queens. Five minutes into the second period, Hearts were awarded a penalty. Jamie Walker chased a clipped pass from Hamill and darted between McGuffie and Andy Dowie as he entered the penalty box. The winger fell as Dowie challenged and referee John McKendrick pointed to the spot.
The award was slightly fortuitous in truth but Hamill confidently stroked the penalty into the rigging to restore Hearts’ advantage, 2-1. Again, they failed to hold it. Ten minutes later, Lyle fastened on to a pass in behind Brad McKay and squared for Paton to slide in and level this tie for the second time.
It turned out to be McKay’s last involvement before he was substituted. The defender was ordered to sit in the dugout by Locke after trying to storm up the tunnel in frustration. It had not been his best performance.
“Brad’s been magnificent, absolutely outstanding,” his manager offered as words of encouragement. “We’ve said all along that we will get inconsistent performances and we’ve had a word with him in the dressing-room. It just wasn’t his night.
“People forget Brad made his debut towards the end of last season but he’s never played regularly. He’s come in and been outstanding. I think he’ll learn from it because he’s that type of boy.
“He was obviously frustrated. I was like that myself, you get frustrated when you’ve not had the best of nights. That’s the mentality we want here because everybody’s in it together. He sat in the dugout and watched the rest of the game and he’s very much part of the squad.”
The remainder of the second half saw Queen of the South press the hosts back for long spells without creating many clear openings. Extra-time arrived with those from Dumfries sensing the chances of a cup shock were increasing by the minute. But, two minutes after the restart, they had to think again when Hearts moved ahead for the third time in the game. Walker’s corner was pinged out to Hamill 30 yards from goal and his low delivery into penalty area was impishly flicked into the net by Wilson.
Still Queens weren’t finished. With four minutes remaining in extra-time, Higgins volleyed high into MacDonald’s top corner after a free-kick had ricocheted around the Hearts box. Penalties were now a certainly. Given Hearts’ wealth of experience with that scenario in the League Cup, it should have been no surprise that they prevailed.