The humiliation of losing to a part-time team three divisions below remains raw for Hearts 36 hours since the horror of Balmoor. Players are aghast at a 2-1 Betfred Cup defeat by League Two Peterhead and acknowledge they let themselves, their club and supporters down in Aberdeenshire.
Players are aghast at a 2-1 Betfred Cup defeat by League Two Peterhead and acknowledge they let themselves, their club and supporters down in Aberdeenshire.
No excuses are offered. Those involved know such a result simply isn’t acceptable at a club with aspirations of lifting the trophy. It was a seismic defeat to rank alongside any cup shock in Hearts’ history. Eliminations from the same tournament by Airdrie at Tynecastle in 2008, or away at Ross County in 2001, or at home to Montrose in 1986 were just as catastrophic. The 1982 Scottish Cup disaster at Forfar is another nadir.
Hearts’ consolation this time is that they remain in the competition. Pressure on head coach Ian Cathro increased on Tuesday evening even though beating Dunfermline in this weekend’s final Group B match will secure a place in the Betfred Cup knockout phase.
Players are now eager to seize that opportunity and atone for a harrowing night in the north east against a club in Scotland’s fourth tier. Defender Jordan McGhee, out to impress after a year-long loan at Middlesbrough, laid bare the despair inside the away dressing room.
“Everyone was just gutted, speechless. We let ourselves down, we let our fans down, we let our club down and we let our gaffer down,” he said. “It was a terrible night all in. I can’t remember a night as bad as that. It’s probably one of the worst defeats I’ve had in my career.
“Two years ago, we played Forfar away and we were 1-0 up before they equalised with five minutes to go. That took it into extra-time, although we went through in the end. That wasn’t acceptable. To go up to Peterhead and get beat is ten times worse. It was a shocking night all round for the boys and the club.”
McGhee denied there was any complacency in Hearts’ minds which could have contributed to a blunt display. Jason Brown’s headed opener was cancelled out by Kyle Lafferty before Rory McAllister’s 89th-minute penalty sealed victory for Peterhead.
“You can never have complacency, as was shown on Tuesday,” continued the 21-year-old. “I thought the boys prepared well after a good result and performance against East Fife at home. We went into the Peterhead game and should’ve been flying.
“I think too many of us let ourselves down on the pitch and that can’t happen. When you go to places like Parkhead and Ibrox [Hearts visit both Glasgow venues in the league next month], you need 11 boys at the top of their game. We’re just devastated.
“The League Cup is a massive thing. When we sat down at the start of the season, we wanted to win the group to get into the next round. The result the other night has just made it a lot harder for us.
“There is another chance to redeem ourselves on Saturday against Dunfermline. That will be another tough game, although a different kind of challenge to Tuesday night. It’s one we need to pick ourselves up for and make sure we take care of the result.”
The desire for an aggressive response is clear. “We need to react. That’s part of football, you need to bounce back,” said McGhee.
“We have a lot of character in the changing room. Even after the game on Tuesday, we were all devastated but some boys were going round telling everyone: ‘Let’s get together and let’s get through this.’ It’s one of those freak results but it was down to us, so it’s up to us to redeem ourselves.”
Redemption is a commodity McGhee is becoming familiar with. A graduate of the Riccarton youth academy, his Hearts career looked all but over 12 months ago when he was loaned to Middlesbrough. It was a move he wanted at the time as he struggled to establish himself under then-head coach Robbie Neilson.
He is now back at his formative club, where his contract runs until January, and enjoying a fresh start under Cathro. Tuesday night withstanding, of course.
“I’ve had a few conversations with the gaffer. He’s been great with me and he’s been honest with me. That’s all you can ask for as a player, honesty from the manager,” said McGhee, who played in last Saturday’s 3-0 Betfred Cup win over East Fife..
“The way he plays suits me. He likes his centre-backs to have the ball. He’s trusted me and put faith in me to play. That’s all I’ve ever wanted – a run in the team under a manager who believes in me and wants me to go out and play.
“Most importantly, he’s playing me at centre-back. I don’t mind playing in the full-back positions but you always want to play where you’re most comfortable. Thankfully, I’ve got a shot there.
“I knew I was contracted to Hearts so I came back, put my head down and just worked as hard as I possibly could. That’s what I’ve always done. Since I’ve been back, things have just turned and things are improving.
“The new gaffer’s style is rubbing off on me. I’m just trying to do my best for him, the team and the club and see where it takes me.”
The Scotland Under-21 defender still feels moving south was the right option. “I went to Middlesbrough because I wanted to take myself out of the limelight a little bit and play a full season at centre-back. I wanted to go down there and get my confidence back by playing centre-back all the time.
“I did that. I worked for myself because I realised what I needed to work on. I found myself out a bit so I’ve worked on a few things and then come back here. Everything has seemed to fall into place personally.
“The gaffer has been great with. me and I’m working hard for him. We’re both just working really well together. Who knows what will happen? I’m sure we’ll have a lot more conversations about what happens. Right now, I’m in a good place – probably one of the best places I’ve been at Hearts since I started playing in the first team.
“It’s great that a manager believes in you and believes in his team and his philosophy.
“All you ask for is someone to be honest with you and give you a chance to do your stuff on the park. Thankfully, we’ve got a manager who is fair and honest and gives everyone a chance. If you’re not playing well, you deserve to be dropped. If you’re playing well, you deserve to be in the team. That’s the way it should be.
“I’m still contracted to the club just now so I’m optimistic. They’ve been great with me. If I can hold my place in the team, who knows what can happen? If not, I’ll keep working hard to get back in the team until my future is sorted.”