Motherwell’s late winner was akin to a punch in the guts for Hearts after they fought back into yesterday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final.
Manager Craig Levein looked ashen-faced at full-time as the reality of Carl McHugh’s volley and the consequence of exiting Scotland’s national cup competition sunk in.
The visitors endured a truly awful first half and were fortunate to be only 1-0 down at the interval at Fir Park. Ross Callachan’s mistake led to a calamitous opening goal for Curtis Main after only seven minutes, putting Hearts on the back foot.
However, the half-time introduction of David Milinkovic injected much needed intensity into Levein’s side. Steven Naismith won a penalty, which Kyle Lafferty scored convincingly despite his miss from 12 yards against Kilmarnock on Tuesday night.
On 87 minutes, just as Levein was contemplating throwing caution to the wind in an attempt to win this tie, disaster struck. Christophe Berra’s clearing header was seized upon by the Motherwell captain Carl McHugh. He chested the ball and volleyed perfectly into the top corner past the despairing dive of the Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin.
The Tynecastle side trudged from the field at full-time as three quarters of Fir Park celebrated joyously. Around 4,000 supporters had travelled from Edinburgh hoping to see their team progress to the Scottish Cup’s last four. At the very least, they would have accepted a replay back in Gorgie. That was taken from their grasp when McHugh unleashed his decisive right-footed effort.
“I didn’t see it coming in all honesty. I thought we were very good in the second half and I was thinking about whether we should try to change things and try to win it in the last five minutes,” explained Levein.
“I don’t know what happened in the first half. It was terrible. Motherwell didn’t have a lot of chances and we were stuffy but in possession of the ball we were as poor as I’ve seen us for a while.
“I thought we were really good in the second half and controlled the game. We had an unbelievable penalty claim for a clear handball, we’ve hit the post, [Trevor] Carson has made a brilliant save from Kyle’s header. It was a real sucker punch to lose like that.”
Substitute Andy Rose was the Motherwell player at the centre of Hearts’ penalty claim as the ball appeared to strike his arm. “I was much further away than the referee was but I don’t understand why it wasn’t given,” insisted Levein.
However, he didn’t seek to use that incident as any kind of excuse.
Hearts lost a bizarre opening goal when Callachan allowed Craig Tanner’s low corner to drift past him without attempting to clear. McLaughlin reacted but only to prod the ball off the post and Main managed to flick it over the line.
“For some inexplicable reason, Ross thought the ball was going out of the park and let it go,” bemoaned Levein, angry that his team didn’t quite do justice to their large support. “It was typical of our first-half performance.
“We brought a big support through and I’m disappointed for them. They made plenty noise and got behind the team but our first-half performance wasn’t good enough. Our second-half performance was but we got hit by that sucker-punch at the end and didn’t have a lot of time to try and get back into the game.”
Hearts were re-energised after Milinkovic’s introduction at the start of the second half. Naismith won a penalty when he was fouled by Cedric Kipre and Lafferty dispatched the resultant spot kick home staright down the middle. Which was some feat considering Naismith had been told to take the penalties following the Northern Irishman’s effort on Tuesday.
“Kyle wasn’t supposed to be on the penalties. You know what he’s like,” said Levein. “Steven Naismith was to take them. Kyle was very confident in the way he took it and it was a good penalty.
“I thought he was good in the second half. We didn’t get much from him in the first half but he was touch-and-go whether he was going to play. He’d been up all night with an illness but his second-half performance was excellent.”
It wasn’t enough to earn a replay as Motherwell forced their way into the semis. Manager Steve Robinson felt his team deserved their victory and a place at Hampden Park.
He saw Tanner’s effort disallowed after only three minutes when referee Andrew Dallas awarded a foul. McLaughlin had his hand on the ball and by the rules was deemed to be in control when Tanner prodded it away from him.
“We didn’t let the early decision that went against us get us down,” said Robinson. “We made positive substitutions and I genuinely thought we deserved to win. The boys got their just rewards.
“Did I see the goal coming? On Carl’s right foot? No. He was excellent again. He maybe doesn’t get all the plaudits but what he does in front of the back four is excellent.
“Unfortunately he is going to miss the semi-final after picking up a booking. That is a travesty for the boy. Now we have to make sure we get to the final to give him his just rewards.
“We knew what the feeling was like when we beat Rangers at Hampden. That was the first for many of the boys who are used to playing in front of crowds of 2000.
“You couldn’t wish for a better bunch of boys to work with and hopefully Hampden will be a special occasion again.”