How Aaron McEneff's cameo propelled Hearts to Hampden in 4-2 Scottish Cup win over St Mirren
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They squandered a 2-0 lead to sit level at 2-2 after 62 minutes before substitute Aaron McEneff re-ignited his team, scoring and assisting in the final two goals. It was a compelling quarter-final played at relentless pace and amounted to a fine advert for Scotland’s national cup competition.
This season’s winners, of course, are likely to be guaranteed European group stage football through to November. The cup therefore carries extra appeal for the teams left. St Mirren deserve enormous praise for a fightback from 2-0 down but Hearts weren’t to be denied a semi-final place at Hampden Park.
Beni Baningime’s first goal in maroon opened the scoring before Peter Haring doubled the advantage before the 30-minute mark. Eamonn Brophy brought Stephen Robinson's team back into the game prior to half-time, and Connor Ronan unleashed a stunning equaliser just after the hour mark.
The decision to introduce McEneff by Hearts manager Robbie Neilson changed the game. The Irishman struck with his first touch to restore Hearts’ lead and then crossed for Ellis Simms to convert the fourth.
The cameo appearance was precisely the tonic to reinvigorate the hosts in the closing stages of a pulsating game and push them into the semi-final.
As Tynecastle glistened under the Saturday evening floodlights, a healthy travelling support from Paisley took up residence in the Roseburn Stand making plenty noise.
Five of Hearts six injured players from Tannadice last weekend did not make this tie, Nathaniel Atkinson the only survivor from Riccarton’s walking wounded. That meant three under-18s on the substitutes’ bench.
Another head knock to Craig Halkett in the first few minutes raised further consternation in the home camp, although he was able to continue thanks to a bandage round the forehead. The central defender was to have an outstanding evening overall.
St Mirren kept the same outfield team that beat Dundee in midweek but changed goalkeeper Dean Lyness for Jak Alnwick. It was the visitors' goal under siege in the opening period and that culminated in a goal on 16 minutes.
Barrie McKay received Liam Boyce’s pass on the left and progressed to deliver a left-footed cross towards Simms. The Englishman had two attempted shots in the six-yard area but did not connect cleanly with either, and Baningime arrived to prod the loose ball into the net.
Saints appealed for a penalty four minutes later when Scott Tanser’s vicious drive appeared to strike Stephen Kingsley’s arm. Referee Bobby Madden remained impassive. When Hearts scored again before the half hour, the Paisley club’s last four prospects looked to be teetering on the brink.
Boyce and Simms exchanged passes before the Northern Irishman fired a pass out to Ben Woodburn in an advanced position in the right. He sent if first-time into the centre when the onrushing Peter Haring side-footed confidently beyond Alnwick.
St Mirren required resilience to get back into this open and entertaining affair. They halved the deficit after 35 minutes. Richard Tait’s cross from the right deflected off Stephen Kingsley before Brophy’s outstretched leg diverted it high into the top corner of Craig Gordon’s goal.
The frenetic pace continued and Halkett smashed a loose ball off the opposition crossbar before the interval. By half-time it was clear that the next goal in this tie would be pivotal.
Nathaniel Atkinson stung Alnwick’s palms with the first effort of the second period. The goalkeeper then showed lightning-quick reactions to repel Woodburn’s powerful drive after it ricocheted off St Mirren’s Joe Shaughnessy.
Yet it was the away side who got that crucial goal to level the scoreline. A goal-of-the-season contender from Ronan was dispatched from 30 yards, sailing and swerving as it roared past Gordon into the far corner.
Hearts quickly introduced McEneff and he quickly restored their advantage with his first touch. Another Atkinson cross hit Charles Dunne and McEneff reacted instinctively with his thigh to redirect the ball past Alnwick and put his team 3-2 up.
The chances didn’t stop there. A brilliant save by Alnwick low to his left prevented Kingsley’s free-kick re-establishing the hosts’ two-goal cushion. Then McEneff produced another telling contribution with the assist for Simms to wrap up this tie five minutes from the end.
The midfielder’s right-sided cross was touched home by the on-loan Everton forward at the near post. With that, the Hearts support could start planning their trip to Hampden.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Gordon; Atkinson, Halkett, Kingsley, Halliday; Baningime, Haring; Woodburn (McEneff 67), Boyce, McKay (Sibbick 90); Simms.
St Mirren (4-2-3-1): Alnwick; Tait, Shaughnessy, Dunne, Tanser (Fraser 53); Power, Gogic (Grieve 75); Ronan, Kiltie (Henderson 75), Jones; Brophy.
Referee: Bobby Madden.