This was a comfortable if unspectacular start to the new season for Hearts as Kyle Lafferty’s header secured victory in Elgin. The Betfred League Cup Group B tie was settled by the Northern Irishman after an hour on a night when the Premiership side struggled to break down their stubborn League Two hosts.
Goalless at half-time, Hearts enjoyed the majority of possession without creating too many clear-cut scoring opportunities. That theme changed little after the interval. The visitors did get more joy as the game wore on and their part-time opponents visibly tired. A break inside the penalty area eluded them despite their best efforts but they were content to leave Moray with a 1-0 win.
It was Polish substitute Rafal Grzelak – a first-half replacement for the injured Ashely Smith-Brown – who teed up the winning goal. His delivery from the left following a foul on the lively Esmael Goncalves was nodded home by Lafferty for his first competitive Hearts goal. It was a timely intervention given most of his team-mates’ efforts were off target throughout the evening.
It’s not often anyone reports on the stifling heat of Elgin, but temperatures at Borough Briggs touched 26 degrees. The build-up to kick-off saw players from both sides sweating it out on the well-preened grass surface at Britain’s most northern league football venue. They were watched by around 550 travelling supporters who perched themselves on the grass verges behind the goals – hopefully plastered in suncream.
Hearts fielded a strong side despite travelling north without Arnaud Djoum, Bjorn Johnsen, Liam Smith and John Souttar. Competitive debuts were given to captain Christophe Berra, right-back Michael Smith, left-back Ashley Smith-Brown and striker Laffery. Head coach Ian Cathro wants his team to build momentum as quickly as possible after a disappointing second half last season. For that reason, he named his strongest available line-up, with Lafferty leading the forward line.
Part-time Elgin entered this affair on the back of a crushing 6-0 defeat at Dunfermline on Saturday as Group B began with a bang. Manager Jim Weir, the former Hearts defender, was trying to initiate a response from his players against a side four divisions higher in the Scottish Professional Football League.
Elgin’s ball retention levels made creating openings difficult early on, whilst their opponents kept possession comfortably. Lafferty and Jamie Walker both had shots at goal which didn’t properly test the City goalkeeper Marc Waters. Hearts’ build-up was patient as they tried to fashion an opening. They were roared on by a notably loud and vocal Cathro on the edge of his technical area.
Walker did round Waters after quarter of an hour to roll the ball into an empty net following a defensive mix-up as Berra’s long ball forward caused confusion. However, the offside flag denied him the game’s opening goal. Lafferty swung his foot at Esmael Goncalves’ cross but failed to connect. It was clear Hearts’ harboured more quality, clear chances were at a premium, though.
Much of the visitors’ threat was coming down the right flank where the Northern Irishman Michael Smith dominated. He scarpered up and down the wing at a steady pace, linked well with forwards and midfielders, and delivered a couple of dangerous crosses. At first glance, the man signed from Peterborough United looks a reliable acquisition by the Tynecastle management.
On the opposite side, Ashley Smith-Brown was disappointingly forced off by an injury before the half-hour mark. Grzelak took his place in the left wing-back position in Cathro’s 3-4-2-1 system. A fairly mundane first half drew to a close after Don Cowie’s volley from Lafferty’s headed knockdown soared over Waters’ crossbar. The goalless interval scoreline didn’t impress the maroon-clad following. Indeed, a few near Cathro’s dugout complained about a lack of urgency from their team as the half-time whistle sounded.
Goncalves drove inside away from the Elgin right-back Matthew Cooper to dispatch a powerful shot at Waters on 52 minutes. The keeper held the effort as consternation within the Hearts camp began to grow. Any exasperation wasn’t helped when the visitors appealed for a penalty as the grounded Stephen Bronsky appeared to handle while tackling Lafferty. Referee Steven Kirkland allowed play to continue.
Cathro bawled several times at his team to “play quicker” and increase the tempo. The sense was that Elgin wouldn’t cope if Hearts reached top gear. Eventually, with almost an hour gone, Lafferty opened his competitive account for his new club. Goncalves won a free-kick on the left near the goal line and, once the set-piece was taken, Grzelak delivered a teasing cross for the Northern Irishman to glance into the far corner of the net.
There was palpable relief for Hearts at that stage. Elgin hadn’t troubled them in an attacking sense but everyone inside Borough Briggs was conscious of the potential for an upset at 0-0. Once Lafferty made the breakthrough, there was only ever likely to be one outcome.
Walker came close to adding a second with a 20-yard shot on 74 minutes which bounced just wide of target. He then made way for Rory Currie to a welcome round of applause from the travelling support. His future remains uncertain amid strong interest from Rangers, however the Hearts fans clearly want him to stay in Edinburgh.
Elgin tried to mount a late rally in an effort to prise an equaliser. They howled for a penalty when midfielder Brian Cameron went down in the act of shooting under pressure from Grzelak. Again, referee Kirkland ignored the claims. Jack Hamilton then held Cooper’s looping header in the last act of the match. Lafferty’s header remained the deciding factor in this game to provide his new team with a steady start to the new campaign.
Elgin City (4-2-3-1): Waters; Cooper, Bronsky, McHardy, S Smith (Eadie); McGovern (McLeish 70), Cameron; Dodd, Reilly, Sutherland; Allan (McKinnon 75). Unused subs: Ferguson, Wilson, Dear.
Hearts (3-4-2-1): Hamilton; Hughes, Nowak, Berra; M Smith, Cowie, Buaben, Smith-Brown (Grzelak 28); Walker (Currie 74), Goncalves; Lafferty (Stockton 84). Unused subs: Noring, Martin, McGhee, Petkov.
Referee: S Kirkland