Michael Smith’s first Hearts goal prevented yet another Betfred Cup catastrophe for the Edinburgh club at Bayview on Saturday.
It didn’t stop travelling fans venting anger at their Premiership team’s failure to beat League One Raith Rovers inside 90 minutes.
More than 800 supporters unleashed venom from the stand as Hearts drew 1-1 with Raith before earning a Group C bonus point with a 4-2 penalty shootout win.
Having lost to Peterhead and drawn with Dunfermline to exit last year’s Betfred Cup group phase, there is much to atone for in this summer’s tournament. However, two games in and Tynecastle officials are facing sanctions for fielding an ineligible player whilst the team struggle to beat third-tier opposition.
There is no denying Hearts underperformed in a cup which seems to cause them perennial problems – some of their own making. They beat Cove Rangers 2-1 on Wednesday whilst fielding the ineligible Andy Irving as a substitute. Punishment for that misdemeanour will be set by an SPFL panel today.
Teenage substitutes Aidan Keena, Callumn Morrison and Anthony McDonald had to be introduced for extra vigour and impetus against Raith as the visitors chased the game.
Smith’s 25-yard equaliser on 78 minutes averted a seismic cup shock after Kevin Nisbet had deservedly put Raith ahead. The same Raith that lost 2-0 to League Two Cowdenbeath in this competition last weekend. It was a bizarre state of affairs given the 13 signings paraded in Gorgie this summer. Seven of them started this game.
“We take full responsibility,” said Smith. “The fans are angry, we’re angry and the staff are angry. If you don’t perform, you don’t play. It’s as simple as that. It’s like that at every football club. We’ve got a much bigger squad than last year and people will be left out. If you haven’t performed and you’re left out of the squad, you have no arguments.
“I don’t want to make any excuses. It’s down to the players. We haven’t been good enough. Journalists are saying so many new players are coming in, but they’ve been here for weeks and we know each other by now. That’s not an excuse.
“The fans pay money to come and watch us and they should go to places like Bayview and watch us win comfortably. We haven’t done so and they are allowed to show their frustrations.
“There are no ifs or buts about it, we were poor. Raith made it hard for us. They sat in and put bodies on the line but it’s up to us to figure out a way to get through them and beat them. We didn’t do that and that’s down to us. It’s our problem.
“Coming up against lower-league opposition, they’re going to set up well and make it hard for you. We’re fit enough and we’ve had a good pre-season. It’s competitive football now, it’s not pre-season. We know that. We haven’t started well and it’s down to us to get better.”
Raith switched the game to East Fife’s home having only just relaid the pitch at Stark’s Park. Nisbet’s opening goal came five minutes after the restart. Kyle Lafferty, Hearts’ top goalscorer last season, was then replaced by Keena having appeared to jar his back. Smith’s reply came as the game entered its final stages.
“I just thought I’d have a go because we didn’t have many shots on target. Luckily it went in,” he said. Christophe Berra, the Hearts captain, was denied a winning goal in the dying moments. Referee Don Robertson judged a foul on the Raith goalkeeper Robbie Thomson as Berra’s header from Bobby Burns’ corner landed in the net. TV replays seemed to prove Thomson was felled by one of his own defenders.
“I didn’t have a great view of it but, from what I’ve heard, it was their fellow who jumped into their keeper. If they had VAR they might have seen it,” joked Smith.
Raith’s gutsy approach and superb organisation had to be admired. It said much that the aforementioned teenagers were required to help save the day for the visitors. “The young lads have been fantastic. Callumn Morrison was great at Cove last week. I would have had no arguments if he had started on Saturday and I said that to him,” said Smith, who had replaced Morrison in the starting line-up.
“He was a bit disappointed not to start but he’s a young lad learning his trade. He’ll be a great player. The young lads are coming through and pushing the older ones.”
Smith, Keena, Steven Naismith and John Souttar scored in the shootout for Hearts, although Olly Lee’s effort was punched to safety by Robbie Thomson, the Raith goalkeeper.
Gillespie and Euan Murray hit the net for Raith, but Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal saved Kyle Benedictus’ attempt and Ross Matthews’ effort soared over the crossbar.