Robbie Neilson hailed a successful trip to the west coast as Hearts won the DK Lafferty Challenge Cup in Oban.
Three wins, a draw and a defeat from five games each lasting 30 minutes gave Hearts the trophy, and Neilson was pleased with both the silverware and how his players coped with a lot of football in a short period.
“It was decent – it was a good day” he said. “It was a long hard day for them, starting at the back of ten and finishing at nearly five o’clock so it’s a long one but good to get a run out for them all. It’s a fitness thing but with anything, you want to go and win – to win tournaments and win trophies and that’s why we stayed Friday night – we prepared properly and we managed to do it.”
Owner Anne Budge, making a weekend of it in Oban, was the main attraction for those of a maroon persuasion in attendance, with ‘selfies’ the order of the day as she took her seat in the spartan enclosure at Mossfield Stadium.
The Jambos travelled with a strong squad for the six-team tournament, and were ahead in less than five minutes of their opening match against a young Alloa team. Sam Nicholson’s corner from the left found Jordan McGhee after a spot of pinball in the box, and the eventual Player of the Tournament fired home from close range.
Hearts’ second goal followed almost immediately, and was almost a carbon copy of the first, McGhee winning the initial ball which fell to Gary Oliver, who side-footed home for his third goal in five outings in pre-season. The teenager made that four in the second 15 minutes, taking Kenny Anderson’s pass in his stride and dinking the ball home from close range for a 3-0 win.
After a ten-minute break, Hearts faced St Johnstone Under-20s. Juanma Delgado notched his second for the club in the first 15 after Gavin Reilly fed Soufian El Hassnaoui, who centred for the big Spaniard to sweep home from close range. Oliver then increased his pre-season tally to five, sending a smart volley past former Hearts youth keeper Jordan Millar.
The Saints pulled one back after Callum Paterson’s throw was too strong for Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander, who could only head the ball up in the air, allowing former Spartans striker George Hunter to nod it home. Juanma limped back to the dressing-room with a tight groin, though the Jambos saw out the second half without too much trouble, and Neilson wasn’t overly concerned with Juanma’s withdrawal. “He’s got a problem with his groin – we’ll monitor it and see where we are but hopefully it’s not too bad.”
Next, it was Premiership opposition once more, albeit another youthful Dundee United team. In another fast start from the Jambos, Reilly was inches away from sliding in his debut goal in maroon, but just couldn’t connect with Jamie Walker’s low centre before it was cleared for a corner. Paterson then produced, what was at that point, the goal of the day, striding forward with purpose before letting fly with his right foot, the ball arrowing into the top left corner from 25 yards. Dave Bowman’s well drilled youngsters asserted themselves more in the second half and, claimed a deserved equaliser with two minutes remaining through Jordan Muir as Neilson’s men dropped their first points of the day.
Host club Oban Saints then got their chance to test themselves against Hearts, who were attracting the biggest crowds. Sam Nicholson showed that anything Paterson could do, he could do better with an outrageous goal after six minutes, the winger gliding past three opponents before exploding a shot into the top corner.
Having already beaten Hamilton 1-0, the local amateur side then proved it was no fluke with an impressive comeback. They drew level from the penalty spot following a rash challenge from Leon Jones. Dean Smith – a season ticket holder at Tynecastle – smashed the ball high past goalkeeper Jack Hamilton. If that was a special moment for the Saints player, he then topped it by netting the winner, volleying a loose ball in off the underside of the bar to secure a win for the hosts.
That result meant a decider with Hamilton, who, as well as being the only other club to bring a first-team squad (that included former Hearts striker Christian Nade), brought a boisterous set of fans. Those in red and white on the sidelines were certainly ‘refreshed’ and while maybe not the strongest argument for reintroducing alcohol to grounds, they did at least provide a modicum of atmosphere. As it was, a close-range Nicolson strike on a now sodden pitch was enough to give Hearts the trophy.