CONTROVERSY and drama seem to be prerequisites for Hearts matches these days. Three days after red cards, touchline bust-ups and referee reports against Aberdeen, one of their players was accused of cheating to get an opponent sent off as they beat Raith Rovers on penalties at Stark’s Park.
The victory propels Hearts into the third round of the Scottish League Cup, the draw for which is tomorrow. However, it was overshadowed somewhat by the 74th-minute dismissal of Raith’s Dougie Hill for headbutting Jamie Hamill.
Allegations from the Raith camp are that Hamill exaggerated the situation and that there was no contact as the players squared up inside the visitors’ penalty area. Their heads appeared to come together and Hamill then fell to the turf. Referee Brian Colvin moved in to issue Hill a red card.
Hamill had earlier scored a penalty to equalise Liam Fox’s opener, and at the end of a tense penalty shootout it was Brad McKay who converted the sudden-death spot-kick to secure Hearts’ place in the next round. The Hamill incident was the one dominating the agenda, though.
“It’s not a sending off,” insisted Grant Murray, the Raith manager. “I’ve seen the video evidence. Nothing. It changes the game but it’s just one of these things. We’ve got to take it on the chin and move on. I’ve not spoken to the ref, I’ve just seen the video.
“Dougie says he never touched him. They just walked to each other and the Hearts player went down. It’s very disappointing. You see it in a lot of games when players go together but if there’s no contact there then it’s very disappointing from our point of view. We just need to move on. We’ve lost the game and we need to take the positives out of it.
“It was a big ask when we went down to ten men but the commitment from our players was fantastic to run a very good Hearts side as close as we did. When it goes to penalties it’s a bit of lottery but I was very proud of my players.”
Gary Locke, the Hearts manager, agreed that the decision to reduce Raith to ten men changed the complexion of the match. “The referee sent the boy off. It’s kind of silly to square up but from where I was it was difficult to see,” he said. “That’s not a problem for me. It was their player who got sent off, but it did change the game.” The Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald limped off after just 25 minutes on his 100th competitive appearance for the club.
He suffered a minor sprain on his ankle as his studs stuck in the turf taking a goal kick and was replaced by Mark Ridgers. The Highlander ended the evening a hero with two vital saves during the shootout.
“I’ve known all along Mark is a very able deputy,” said Locke. “He has a great presence about him, did well in pre-season and it’s great from my point of view. I’ve got three really good goalkeepers there including Jack Hamilton. I’m delighted with Mark’s performance.
“We certainly didn’t want extra-time. We didn’t do too well in the first half. The second half was more like us. When they went down to ten men it was difficult because they got everybody behind the ball. I can’t fault the boys for their character and commitment and I’m delighted to be through.”
The first notable incident of the evening was Raith’s 14th-minute penalty claim when Hamill appeared to accidentally trip Calum Elliot as the striker ran across his path to collect a through pass. MacDonald was then called upon to parry a low effort from Joe Cardle at his right post. However, his evening was cut short by injury moments later as Ridgers climbed off the bench to deputise.
Raith’s first-half performance belied their status in the SPFL Championship as they constantly probed the Hearts defence. Ridgers was alert to dive at Gordon Smith’s feet and then repelled a rasping 20-yard drive from Elliot.
Hearts broke forward in the 42nd minute when Kevin McHattie dispatched his own long-range effort at goal, however a deflection forced a corner. It came to nothing, and the half-time whistle sounded with Raith looking comfortable against Premiership opposition.
They had four former Hearts players in their side – Jason Thomson, Elliot, Smith and Fox – whilst Jamie Walker, Jason Holt and David Smith of Hearts had all enjoyed loan periods in Kirkcaldy.
Raith took a one-goal advantage early in the second period. Elliot’s incisive run and cross on the right found Kevin Moon for a low shot which two Hearts defenders threw their bodies in front of. The ball broke to Smith, only for Ridgers to produce a fine save from point-blank range. At the third attempt, the loose ball was dispatched into the net by Fox from around eight yards.
No-one could deny Raith deserved their lead. Locke responded by introducing a second striker as 18-year-old Gary Oliver replaced midfielder Scott Robinson for his competitive debut.
Instantly, Hearts became more threatening and they restored parity on 62 minutes. Walker dispossessed Moon and drove at the opposition penalty area, putting the Raith defence on the back foot. He slid a pass to Billy King, who skipped past Thomson and was fouled. From the penalty spot, Hamill calmly stroked the equaliser to the right of goalkeeper David McGurn.
The game exploded in controversy in the 74th minute when Hill was dismissed for headbutting. Hamill confronted the Raith centre-back after he hauled Ridgers to the ground challenging for a high ball. The pair went head to head and the Hearts midfielder fell to the ground. Colvin stepped in to brandish a straight red card at Hill for violent conduct.
Despite their numerical advantage, Hearts failed to seriously trouble the hosts in the closing stages and the game was forced into extra-time.
Visiting substitute David Smith forced a fingertip save from McGurn after play restarted but, in truth, the first period of extra-time contained little of interest. Walker’s left-foot shot was pushed for a corner early in the second period, and McGurn also collected a low shot from Oliver and another from Walker. Hearts pressed forward until the last whistle but a winning goal eluded them.
The penalty shootout saw Paul Watson, Elliot, Callum Booth and Joe Cardle all score for Raith, however Lewis Vaughan and Thomson missed whilst Ridgers saved efforts from Fox and Ross Callachan. Hamill, Dylan McGowan, Walker and Smith were Hearts’ scorers, but McGurn saved from McHattie, while Danny Wilson and Jason Holt missed.
That left McKay to step up to decide this tie, which he did with a composed finish to spark huge celebrations amongst the visiting players and fans.