RAB DOUGLAS was playing professional football before six of the Hearts starting line-up were even born. Last night, the 43-year-old Forfar goalkeeper proved a stubborn barrier to the Edinburgh club in the League Cup second round. Only the introduction of Callum Paterson as a substitute swung this tie in Hearts’ favour and propelled them into tomorrow’s third round draw.
Douglas was playing for Meadowbank Thistle in 1993 and, some 22 years later, is still going strong at Station Park. He was in inspired form, saving a Gavin Reilly penalty before conceding the opening goal from Kevin McHattie on 74 minutes. Yet Michael Dunlop’s header forced extra-time. A second Hearts goal from Reilly proved decisive in the 105th minute.
Paterson was instrumental in both his team’s goals. He was one of several first-team regulars rested but his intervention was crucial to the final outcome. Forfar ended the night with nine men, Danny Denholm and Kevin Nicoll sent off, and their manager Dick Campbell was sent to the stand. Still, they deserved plenty credit for their resistance.
Hearts’ character was also a standout feature. Weaker teams might have wilted, particularly late in the second half of normal time when Forfar pressed forward sensing the chance for a shock winner. But the young Tynecastle side stuck together and kept their nerve to progress at the end of a pulsating night of cup football.
Hearts were back at Station Park exactly 33 years to the day since they last played here competitively. On Wednesday August 25, 1982, goals from Alex MacDonald and Peter Marinello ensured a 2-0 victory in a League Cup section tie. The Edinburgh club were in the second tier of Scottish football back then but they arrived in Angus last night as proud leaders of the Scottish Premiership.
Head coach Robbie Neilson promised changes and made seven alterations to his team in total. Jack Hamilton, Liam Smith, Jordan McGhee, McHattie, Sean McKirdy, Billy King and Gary Oliver all started the match aiming to impress. Campbell switched four players from Forfar’s weekend 4-1 win over Stenhousemuir, leaving Hibs loanee Lewis Allan on the bench.
The Angus club’s League One campaign has started with three wins from three and they were in confident mood. With both teams carrying momentum, an open and entertaining encounter seemed certain as the game kicked off in evening sunshine. Hearts created the first shooting chance in the sixth minute when King’s cross was cleared only as far as McKirdy. The teenage midfielder returned it powerfully but his effort from 18 yards rose above the crossbar.
The visitors’ crisp passing movements around the Station Park astroturf were always likely to fashion more openings. King tried a left-footed attempt after cutting in from the right flank which Douglas collected comfortably. Martyn Fotheringham’s deflected shot from a free-kick then provided Hamilton with a straightforward catch as Forfar registered their first effort on target.
Campbell’s players were content to let Hearts pass in their own half of the field before pressing them hard once the ball crossed the halfway line. The ploy was dangerous given the Premiership team’s ability to ping balls in between their opponents in tight areas and at a high tempo. One neat interchange involving Reilly and Oliver ended with the latter firing narrowly over the bar from outside the penalty box.
Gradually, as the first half wore on, Forfar retreated towards their own box. Three crosses into Douglas’ box were begging for a finish as King and Sam Nicholson supplied ammunition. There were no takers, however. Forfar defended stubbornly and got forward occasionally with quick balls up to target striker Chris Templeman. The interval arrived with the scoreline blank and it was clear this was becoming a test of patience for Hearts.
They worked Douglas more in the early stages of the second period. The goalkeeper held Jordan McGhee’s free-kick, then produced an inspired double save to stop Reilly’s shot and the striker’s rebound. Finally, he got down low to take King’s low left-footer.
Juanma replaced Oliver with an hour played and 16-year-old Callumn Morrison took over from King minutes later. Commendably, Forfar’s fitness levels were lasting well despite their part-time status. They continued to hold firm in defence, despite conceding a penalty in the 70th minute.
Nicholson’s low cross struck Kevin Nicoll’s hand as he slid in to block. Referee Greg Aitken pointed to the spot immediately, but Reilly’s penalty was repelled by Douglas. As if that wasn’t enough, the veteran keeper was alert enough to also push Juanma’s follow up for a corner, much to the delight of the home support.
Their joy wasn’t to last as McHattie finally rattled in the goal Hearts’ superiority merited after 74 minutes. Callum Paterson, on as substitute, won possession in midfield and fed the ball wide to Nicholson. He passed inside to the onrushing McHattie who controlled the ball and rifled it high into the net beyond the helpless Douglas from eight yards.
Juanma’s header from Liam Smith’s cross would have made it 2-0 but again Douglas was in position to block with his legs. Forfar had to attack to try and prise an equaliser and could only lament substitute Craig Smith’s lunge at Denholm’s whipped cross, which sent the ball high into the night sky. Their next attack did yield a goal, though, with six minutes left.
A high ball into the back post was met by the head of Dunlop for a looping header which dropped into the net at the other side of goal. Hearts, aiming to see the game out, were now faced with 30 minutes of extra-time. Had Denholm not skied his shot from sub Gavin Malin’s pass on 88 minutes, they might have been out of the cup altogether. It was indeed the winger’s last act, for he was sent off near the end of normal time. He had tripped both McGhee and Paterson inside a few minutes but, in truth, they were really his only two tackles of the night.
One more attack from Hearts saw McHattie lash a 25-yard attempt at goal, but Douglas took to the air to touch the ball over his bar. With that, it was into extra-time and Hearts tried to exploit the fact Forfar were reduced to ten men. The slung cross after cross into the penalty box and earned their reward at the end of the first period of extra-time.
Morrison’s corner landed at the far corne of the box for Paterson to volley. The ball landed in the net at the far post via a deflection from Reilly. Campbell protested that the interval whistle should have been blown and was ordered to the stand for his comments.
The second period of extra-time didn’t get going due to niggly fouls caused by tired legs. There was a final red card for Nicoll for a reckless and downright awful challenge on young Morrison. Hearts by then were content to play out time and head back south with their place in the next round safe.