Hearts were denied their second pre-season trophy last night as Stirling Albion lifted the Supporters Direct Scotland Cup.
A first-half goal from 17-year-old Tynecastle striker Russell McLean was overhauled by Sean Dickson’s penalty and then a winner from trialist striker Salim Kouider-Aissa. That prevented Hearts adding the silverware they won against Dunfermline in 2013 to the DK Lafferty Challenge Cup lifted in Oban on Saturday.
The evening was a success for Hearts coach Robbie Neilson on other levels, though, as several young players staked a claim ahead of the new campaign. McLean only arrived from Alloa last month but stood out with a goal and intelligent link-up play in addition to his gangly 6ft 4in frame.
Also making an impression on trial was 18-year-old Canadian youth internationalist Dario Zanatta. He left Vancouver Whitecaps in February and has since been on trial with IFK Gothenburg and Ipswich Town. He has a fine scoring record as a striker at youth level in his homeland and can also play midfield. He lined up wide on the right last night and showed a fine touch and instinct to attack in the first half.
On the opposite flank, another teenager was in fine form. Left winger Lewis Moore went past opponents with both pace and skill to indicate he may be one to watch in future.
After an even start to the match, Hearts’ link-up play began to take them in behind the Stirling Albion defence. The opening goal came as a result of such a movement on 18 minutes. Soufian El Hassnaoui’s throw-in found Kevin McHattie scarpering away from the offside trap and his low, left-footed cross was converted from close range by McLean.
Stirling’s best player of the evening was left winger Sandy Cunningham, who shot wide of Neil Alexander’s goal after a dribbling run into the Hearts penalty area. McHattie again linked with El Hassnaoui to fashion another chance at the opposite end moments later. The full-back’s short ball to the Dutch-Moroccan preceded a tidy turn and shot which drifted off target. El Hassnaoui then had an effort which was held by the home goalkeeper, Chris Smith.
Callum Paterson was Hearts’ captain for the night and his attempt from 20-odd yards rolled wide just after the half-hour. Stirling then pursued an equaliser with the interval approaching, and Dickson ought to have done better when he glanced a free header wide.
Neilson replaced his entire team – with the exception of centre-back Jahmal Howlett-Mundle – during the interval. The first effort of the second half came when Stirling Albion’s John-Paul McGovern drove a free-kick inches past Alexander’s right post. Steven Doris was next to try and beat the Hearts substitute goalkeeper Jack Hamilton, but both his efforts were held comfortably.
The number of changes upset the visitors’ momentum in the early stages of the second half. Strikers Gavin Reilly and Osman Sow weren’t slow to hit from distance in the hope of catching goalkeeper Smith unaware. Sow sent two somewhat wayward shots over the small standing area behind the goal, and will want to be considerably more accurate when the competitive action begins in two weeks’ time.
Just when it looked like Hearts would stay in control and close out the match, they lost two goals inside three minutes. Howlett-Mundle pulled down Stirling substitute Sam Davidson inside the box and Dickson calmly converted the penalty on 75 minutes. Three minutes later, the visiting defence could not clear a corner and Kouider-Aissa lashed the ball high past Hamilton.
Adrenalin was now flowing within the home players as they sought to hold on for a morale-boosting victory. Hearts, though, continued pressing in hope of a late goal to atone for a few minutes of poor concentration. Jordan McGhee’s free-kick was touched over for a corner by Smith but the keeper could only watch Sow’s drive from Reilly’s touch cannon off the post. The final whistle sounded and Hearts trudged from the field, but Stirling Albion gratefully accepted the SDS Cup in front of their support.
Stirling Albion (4-2-3-1): Smith; Hamilton, McMillan, Smith (McGeachie 22), Forsyth (Kouider-Aissa 73); Johnston, Comrie (Robertson 62), McGovern, Cunningham (Sam Davidson 73); Doris (Scott Davidson 73), Dickson. Subs: McKinlay, McKenzie, Binnie.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander (Hamilton 46); Paterson (L Smith 46), Jones (McGhee 46), Howlett-Mundle, McHattie (Baur 46); Anderson (Walker 46), McKirdy (Buchanan 46); Zanatta (King 46), El Hassnaoui (Reilly 46), Moore (I Smith 46); McLean (Sow 46).
Referee: Craig Charleston.