It was fitting, in a way, that Hearts ended this persistently-testing season placed in the face of significant adversity.
A league campaign that started without a manager and with the opening 13 games away from Tynecastle has been plagued throughout by rhythm-disrupting injuries and suspensions to key men.
Ahead of yesterday’s trip to Rugby Park, this situation was taken to extremes as Craig Levein had to contend with the worst personnel crisis of his managerial career, with only five senior outfield players available for selection – Kyle Lafferty, Ross Callachan, Don Cowie, David Milinkovic and Aaron Hughes.
In the end, the team that started contained five teenagers, including four aged 17 or under. Two of them, Chris Hamilton and Cammy Logan, were 16-year-old debutants and both started in a back four which also contained a 38-year-old (Hughes) and a 19-year-old winger (Lewis Moore).
Underlining the task Levein was faced with in putting out a team, Logan, a South Queensferry boy who only recently signed a full-time contract, was effectively seventh in the pecking order for a right-back berth, with Michael Smith, Marcus Godinho, Connor Randall, Jamie Brandon, Liam Smith and Jay Sandison all unavailable for a variety of reasons. Both Harry Cochrane and Logan had to come off early, making way for another couple of 16-year-old debutants, midfielder Connor Smith and attacker Leeroy Makovora. In total, Hearts fielded eight teenagers, seven of whom were 17 or under.
Thankfully for the visitors, the match against buoyant Kilmarnock mattered little, with their league position of sixth assured regardless of yesterday’s result, but the young players were entitled to feel proud of their efforts as they made the match more competitive than the travelling support would have anticipated.
Things looked ominous when Lee Erwin gave the hosts a tenth-minute lead. The floodgates could easily have opened at that stage. But Hearts found their way into the game and looked comfortable enough until the last ten minutes when goalkeeper Jack Hamilton, given his first start since August as Jon McLaughlin, pictured left, sat on the bench, had to make four excellent saves to stop Kilmarnock adding gloss to the scoreline.
“We were always in the game,” said Levein, who was clearly relieved his makeshift team were able to keep things respectable.
“It didn’t start well and it could have slid quite dramatically. I have seen it happen in the past. We had a communication problem down the sides early on that was causing us problems, but we sorted that out.
“Admittedly Jack had a few really good saves to keep us in it, but even right at the end we might have had a chance to nick a point.”
After Greg Kiltie and Aaron Tshibola both tested Hamilton early on, Kilmarnock took the lead when Erwin forced his way down the left and fired an angled shot beyond Hamilton. Hearts had a great chance to level in the 21st minute when Milinkovic burst up the left and released Lafferty through the middle. The Northern Irishman looked all set to net his 20th goal of the season but goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald did well to turn his low attempt behind for a corner.
It turned out to be the visitors’ only clear chance of the match, although they were generally able to keep the hosts at arm’s length until the closing ten minutes, when they were reliant on Hamilton to make four excellent saves to deny Kris Boyd, Erwin (twice) and Eamonn Brophy.
“Obviously they had a spell in the second half where the young boys are tiring,” said Levein. “There was part of me fearing it could be sore but Jack made some really, really good saves when we needed him. We got away with one but all credit to the boys.
“It will do the youngsters the world of good. Overall I thought they were really good and special mention for the likes of Aaron Hughes, Don Cowie and Kyle Lafferty for trying to hold the whole thing together. It was a very unusual situation but we didn’t come away from it with anybody’s confidence shattered, which is the main thing for me.”
For the second game running at the end of a trying campaign the Hearts players were applauded off by their supporters. Even allowing for the mitigating circumstances of this season, it is generally accepted that Hearts simply must do significantly better next term.
“I would never say I’m happy with sixth place because that’s not something a Hearts manager can ever say but I do feel it could have been a hell of a lot worse,” said Levein, who is looking forward to consigning this campaign to history and starting afresh this summer.
“I’m absolutely sure next season cannot be as challenging as this one.
“It’s been hard for everybody, really difficult.
“The season’s done and a lot of things in it have been good, a lot of individual matches have been fantastic, a lot of individual performances, especially from the young players, have been excellent.
“Kyle Lafferty scored more goals than any other striker since John Robertson when we haven’t been firing on all cylinders.
“There’s been some good things but the whole thing is feeling a wee bit draining at this moment in time.”