EXPERIENCE may have made the difference in the end, but Hearts boss Gary Locke admitted that the biggest positive to come out of their 2-0 victory over Crusaders was the return to action of Callum Paterson and Danny Wilson.
Goals by old heads Ryan Stevenson and Jamie Hamill gave them a win in the first of their two pre-season matches in Belfast.
Stevenson opened the scoring at The Oval three minutes after the break with a close-range header and Hamill rounded off the victory in injury time, drilling home Hearts’ second goal from the penalty spot.
But the chance to include the versatile Paterson and young team skipper Danny Wilson in the starting line-up for the first time since mid-January and the end of last season respectively served as the source of most pleasure for Locke.
The Hearts manager said: “I was delighted with the way that we played, especially at the start of the second half. I thought that we looked a lot more progressive in the final third of the pitch.
“It was great to have Callum and Danny both back in the side.
“Callum is a fit big lad so I didn’t have any qualms that he wasn’t ready to play, but when you have been out for that length of time it obviously takes a bit of time for them to get back up to match pace.
“But I thought that he showed last night – especially in the second half when I thought he was playing really well – that he is almost there.”
Locke had to withdraw Paterson in the second half after he took a knock on his left foot.
But while the gaffer was disappointed not to be able to let the young striker loose for the full 90 minutes, conceding that the main aim with pre-season fixtures was to prevent his charges from suffering a troublesome injury, Locke believes that Hearts fans will see the best of Paterson in the coming months.
The 21-year-old has bulked out after months of working out in the gym by himself and Locke continued: “I was a bit disappointed to have to take big Callum off because I thought that he was causing them a bit of a problem.
“He took a wee knock and it is probably something and nothing, but he has been out for a long time and when that is the case, you don’t want to take any chances.
“He still got an hour under belt and in pre-season your main aim is to protect your players.
“He is a big lad. When you’re out for any period of time, any player will tell you, that you batter the gym and try to get yourself into peak physical condition.
“Up top he has certainly got a bit bigger and we will need that physical strength for the SPFL season that is ahead of us.
“Hopefully he can go on and cause teams a few problems this season.”
Wilson’s return, in particular, could be a timely one with the Jambos set to open their SPFL account against St Johnstone a week on Sunday and then play host to Hibs in the first Edinburgh derby of the campaign the following weekend.
“He played 45 minutes and I said to him that, if he wants to be in contention for the start of the season, that he had to have the minutes on the pitch,” Locke added.
“I was delighted that he got the first half and he felt great at that. Hopefully he will play a bit longer against Liverpool tomorrow.
“To have someone like him back in the team is a huge boost for us.”
After resting him on the bench for the game against Queen of the South last Saturday, Locke brought goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald back into his starting line-up at the expense of Mark Ridgers.
But it was Crusaders keeper Sean O’Neill who was called into action with just a few minutes gone at The Oval, the home of Glentoran.
Paterson found himself in space and with the ball at his feet after good set-up play by Stevenson and Jason Holt, but despite getting a decent shot in, O’Neill produced a good block with his feet to deny him.
At the other end, Crusaders came close and it would have been a stunning goal by Nathan Hanley had the striker not curled his effort just inches wide of MacDonald’s left-hand post.
Holt then showed exactly why Nottingham Forest are keeping tabs on him by unleashing a long-range effort that O’Neill had to be alert to tip around the post.
There wasn’t much in the way of goalmouth action but there were planes, trains and automobiles to keep the couple of dozen or so Hearts fans distracted with a dual carriageway and train line running directly alongside the stadium and the runway of the George Best City Airport coming to an abrupt end just short of one side of the terracing.
The roaring engines overhead were a decent talking point but the biggest cheers of the night came as news filtered through to the travelling support of Malmo’s goals at Easter Road.
The Tynecastle side should have taken the lead just before half-time when Scott Robinson released Hamill down the right and the little midfielder rushed into the box to collect the return but, with the goal gaping in front of him, Robinson could only pull his shot wide.
However, the Edinburgh side edged in front on 48 minutes when Paterson cut down the right-hand side, beat the keeper and whipped the ball into the six-yard box where Stevenson was waiting to head into the net.
On the hour, they could have doubled their advantage when a good ball by Hamill released Paterson again, but this time the youngster seemed to take too much time to think about it and his shot was blocked by the keeper.They did, however, get reward for their pressure when they were awarded a spot-kick in injury time. Hamill stepped up to slot home after Jamie Walker had been brought down in the box by Chris Morrow.
Hearts: MacDonald, Hamill, McKay, Wilson, McHattie, Robinson, Tapping, McGowan, Holt; Paterson, Stevenson. Subs: Ridgers, Naysmith, McGhee, A King, Nicholson, Walker, Carrick, Smith, B King, Oliver.
Crusaders: O’Neill, Wray, McClean, Leeman, Robinson, Hanley, McAllister, Morrow, Caddell, Snoddy, Owens. Subs: Cleary, Lacroix, McMaster, Graham, Watson.
Referee: T Fairfield