Brad McKay scored a stoppage-time penalty winner as an experienced Hearts Under-20s side edged out their Hibs counterparts in a thrilling SPFL Development League clash at Ainslie Park last night.
Hearts included five recognised first-team players in their starting line-up in the shape of McKay, Jordan McGhee, Billy King, James Keatings and Osman Sow, who played the first 45 minutes in what was his first appearance in three months following a thigh injury. Hibs, by contrast, fielded a team almost entirely of development players, with Jordon Forster, who is still feeling his way back to fitness after his own three-month lay-off, the only first-team player involved. Like Sow, he left the fray at half-time.
Both teams handed out a debut, with Hibs pitching 17-year-old midfielder Aaron Scott in against the side he had just been released from and 19-year-old defender Jake Hutchings starting for Hearts after joining from Torquay United until the end of the season.
Despite their relative youthfulness, Hibs matched their city rivals throughout a captivating encounter, which was played in front of more than 700 people.
The game looked set to end all square, with Keatings scoring either side of goals from Hibs pair Lewis Allan and Conor Duthie.
However, Hearts claimed the victory in controversial fashion when McKay, who has been linked with a move to St Johnstone after being told he is free to leave his boyhood club, scored a penalty which he had won himself despite appearing to handle the ball first.
“You could see in his celebration what it meant to Brad,” said Jack Ross, the Hearts Under-20s coach. “It’s not always easy for players like Brad to play in these games. He’s a first-team squad member who has played in these games during his development years, but I thought he was excellent and his attitude was terrific.
“I’m pleased for him that he wanted to take the penalty and then scored it, although I’m not so sure about how the penalty came about. There might have been a foul the other way before the referee gave us the penalty, but at the same time I didn’t think there’s [for Allan’s goal] was a penalty either.
“You can’t get too uptight about these things in these games, though.”
Hearts almost went ahead after six minutes when Sow got himself one-on-one with Kleton Perntreou, but the Swede screwed his effort wide from just inside the box.
The Jambos went ahead in the 11th minute when Keatings reacted sharpest to a long kick-out from keeper Jack Hamilton, got himself clean through on goal, and dinked a lovely lob over the advancing Perntreou from the edge of the box.
Hibs’ first real sight of goal came in 14 minutes when Lewis Allan smashed the rebound over the bar after strike partner had Taylor Hendry saw his effort blocked by the Hearts defence.
The Easter Road youngsters went even closer four minutes later when Scott Martin, one of the best players on the pitch, saw his curling shot from 25 yards out dip late and smack off the underside of the bar.
Debutant Scott almost netted against his former club with a low curling effort from just inside the box, but Hamilton dived full stretch to his right to push it away.
Sow then pinged a low shot just wide from the edge of the box in the 33rd minute and, at the other end, Hibs pair Hendry and Duthie both went close with headers. Allan had an angled shot from ten yards beaten away by Jack Hamilton as Hibs finished the first half strongly.
Hearts almost edged ahead again four minutes after the break when Keatings curled a 20-yard shot against the post.
Hibs equalised in the 54th minutes when Allan converted a penalty after Hamilton was adjudged to have fouled Martin. And three minutes later they went in front when Duthie drilled home a powerful low shot from 20 yards out.
Hibs’ lead lasted just six minutes, however, as Keatings curled in a free-kick from the angle of the penalty area which beat Perntreou at his near post.
The game finished at a relentless pace as both sides went in search of a winner. McKay headed straight at Perntreou in 75 minutes before, at the other end, Martyniuk shot just past from the edge of the box.
Hearts sub Ali Roy, who had just entered the fray, almost made an instant impact in the 80th minute when his shot from ten yards out was tipped on to the post by Perntreou. A minute later, Hibs had another notable escape when Gary Oliver’s angled shot was brilliantly scrambled off the line by Dunsmore.
It was then the turn of Hamilton to keep Hearts on level terms when he made a magnificent block to stop a goalbound shot from Martin in 82 minutes.
Just as the game looked to be ending in stalemate, Hearts won it in stoppage time. King’s corner was headed against the bar by Liam Gordon and as the ball rebounded into the crowded penalty area, a melee ensued, resulting in McKay falling under a challenge from Jordan McGregor. The referee pointed to the spot, incurring the wrath of the livid Hibs players who felt McKay had handled the ball first. The centre-back dusted himself down, grabbed the ball and fired home the winner.
Despite the victory, Hearts remain 12 points behind Hibs, who sit fourth in the Development League.
“For us, these games are primarily to provide development for the younger players and valuable game time for the senior players, so winning games are not the be all and end all, but it’s always nice for the players to win a derby in the last minute,” said Ross. “Hopefully, they’ll remember it and want more of it.
“You could see the interest in the game with the size of crowd.
“The players respond to that and you could see in the celebrations after the goals that it meant a lot to both teams.”
Ross reported that Sow, who scored eight goals for the first team before sustaining his injury in October, came through his 45-minute outing unscathed. “The intention was always for Osman to play 30 to 45 minutes in the game,” said Ross. “Robbie [Neilson] was considering giving him another ten minutes, but we decided to take him off at half-time. He’s feeling good and hasn’t had any reaction to the problem he’s had.
“All being well, he’ll be available for Saturday.”
Ross was pleased with the performance of debutant Hutchings, who played both in defence and in midfield last night. “Jake’s not had a lot of football in the last few months because he’s just been doing his rehab since picking up an injury when he was on trial with us a few months ago,” he explained. “To come in and play 90 minutes in a reasonable-tempo match was good. He also played in a couple of different roles so I was really pleased with him. We couldn’t have asked for any more from him. It’s not easy to field cross-border trialists in these matches, so we’ve come to an arrangement where he’ll be with us until the end of the season and hopefully impress us.”
Hibs Under-20s coach Joe McBride was proud of his team’s display and felt they merited at least a draw. “The only thing I’m disappointed about was the result,” he said. “I thought we played well and dominated good parts of the game. It could have gone either way in the end. Hearts pressed in the last 15 minutes and created some good chances, but it wouldn’t have been an injustice if we had won it. The boys thought there was a Hearts handball when it was bouncing about the box in the lead-up to their penalty but I didn’t see it.
“Hearts had a lot of first-team players but we’re happy with that because it’s better for our boys’ development than playing against younger lads. It’s great for them to play against experienced guys. It was a good game.”
Hibs Under-20s: Perntreou, Dunsmore, Forster (McGregor 46), Martyniuk, Stirling, Scott, Martin, Duthie, Crane, Allan, Hendry. Subs not used: Brennan, Smith, Waugh, McKee.
Hearts Under-20s: Hamilton, Hutchings, McGhee (I Smith 57), McKay, L Smith, Baxter, Henderson, King, Oliver, Keatings (Roy 78), Sow (Gordon 46). Subs not used: Mason, Irving, Baur.