Gary Locke was left lamenting the worst moment of his managerial career after Hearts saw their League Cup dream destroyed by nine-man Inverness at Easter Road yesterday.
The shell-shocked Jambos boss couldn’t believe his side squandered a 2-1 lead with a two-man advantage in the dying seconds of normal time before labouring badly against John Hughes’ spirited Caley Thistle side in extra-time.
In the end, Hearts paid dearly for their inability to make their extra numbers count, with debutant striker Paul McCallum and Jamie Hamill both seeing their penalties saved as Inverness won the shootout 4-2 to set up a meeting with Aberdeen in next month’s final.
“That’s the worst moment of my managerial career, without a doubt,” said Locke. “It’s very difficult to get to semi-finals, but to get the opportunity that we got and then throw it away like that is very difficult to take. We had a corner with just seconds to go and we should have been seeing the game out but we stupidly gave the ball away and they go up the park and get an equaliser. We’re hurting badly but we can only blame ourselves.”
Locke was disappointed with the lack of tempo about his side’s play in extra-time. “We needed to be better than we were in terms of having that wee bit of quality to carve them open in the final third,” said the manager. “We tended to run with the ball and choose the wrong options instead of moving it about quickly to stretch Inverness.
“Our final ball let us down a lot but when we did get balls into the box, Inverness defended brilliantly. It’s hard to get your message across when it goes to extra time because you’ve not got much time to speak to the players.”
Locke was left ruing the fact that his two main creative players, David Smith and Sam Nicholson, were forced off by injury on a day when their ability to breach a tight defence was needed most. Smith went off at half time with a knee injury, while Nicholson was stretchered off late in the game with a blow to the ribs.
With Hearts’ two attacking subs, McCallum and Ryan Stevenson, already on by the time Nicholson went off, and no other left-sided options in the team, it meant central midfielder Callum Tapping had to come on in left midfield, which limited their attacking threat down that side.
“Sam was having a very good game so it was a big blow to lose him,” said the manager. “Over the course of the game, he was causing Inverness a problem. It’s a difficult one because you only have five subs in the cup, so we had to put Tappy on in left midfield. Losing Sam definitely cost us because he’s the type of player who could have unlocked their defence. We had also lost David Smith, who took a bad knock to his knee earlier in the game.”
Locke was today waiting to find out the extent of the injuries to Smith and Nicholson.