As far as wake-up calls go, the one Hearts received on Wednesday evening was fairly emphatic.
The jolt from a 4-1 loss at Livingston in the Petrofac Training Cup underlined that no-one should become carried away by early-season league wins over Rangers and Hibs. It was a timely and potentially useful reminder ahead of tomorrow’s return to league business at Stark’s Park.
Ten changes to the starting line-up were a major factor in the result in West Lothian as teenagers dominated Robbie Neilson’s teamsheet. The message that any team flying high can become unstuck certainly hit home with one of them.
Jordan McGhee, the 18-year-old Hearts defender, is the only player involved at Livingston who is likely to keep his place against Raith. The others, mostly kids getting their first experience of competitive senior football, will make way. Neilson effectively fielded an under-20 side against what was Livingston’s first-choice line-up and the chasm was clear for all to see.
Hearts face potentially hazardous Championship fixtures against Raith, Falkirk, Dumbarton, Cowdenbeath and Livingston in forthcoming weeks, not to mention Tuesday’s League Cup tie at Ochilview against Stenhousemuir. Wednesday’s events served as a timely warning of the dangers of teams in Scotland’s second tier.
“It was a wake-up call,” admitted McGhee. “We’ve done really well in our first two games of the season. We’ve knocked the ball around well and competed well and defended well. Unfortunately, we defended well for the first hour against Livingston and then I think a lot of it collapsed in the last 30 minutes.
“At the moment, we’re still nowhere near it yet. Beating Rangers and Hibs were two big results for us but, at the end of the day, it’s a long season and it’s just started. We need to keep that momentum going. We’ve got to dust ourselves off. It was a fresh team, a lot of youngsters got their debuts and we rested bigger players for the game at the weekend. The league season is really what matters here. The league matters more than the cups to us.”
The biggest disappointment from Wednesday night for McGhee was the late defensive collapse after Jordan White’s second goal put Livingston 2-0 ahead on 76 minutes. “It didn’t look like a 4-1 game at all. Ten minutes into the second half, it looked like we were going to get something to get us back in the game. They scored a good second goal from their point of view, although it was poor from our perspective. After that, I think we just kind of folded.
“The young boys’ heads went down and the mature heads didn’t turn up at the end. We didn’t really help them out as much as we should have. Whether you’re playing under-20s or whatever level, you need to marshal some players. It was quite an inexperienced back four. Liam Smith and Liam Gordon have been about the first team but they don’t have too many appearances. Me and Brad McKay tried our best to marshal them through the game and I thought they both did well.”
The kids will surely learn from the experience, however Neilson will recall established faces for Raith. Danny Wilson, Alim Ozturk and Kevin McHattie will be back in defence, with Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben anchoring midfield. Goalkeeper Lee Hollis will make way for Jack Hamilton. McGhee is expected to revert to right-back having played alongside McKay in his preferred centre-back role at Livingston. He explained why playing full-back is now more appealing than before. “We got the heads up on Monday morning at training about what was happening for the Livingston game. The gaffer said he was going to play me in my normal position, centre-back, to give me some game time there because a few other players were getting rested. He said they would probably play more games than me over the course of the season.
“It was good to get another game under my best in my right position. I got a shot there up at Dundee in pre-season and I thought I did reasonably well. I thought I did fairly well against Livingston, although there are some things I need to brush up on. I felt I did not too bad.
“I’ll play anywhere to get into the first team so I wouldn’t complain at all if I go back to right-back. Every player wants to play in their own position but I’m really liking right-back this season. I feel as if you have more options when you get the ball. Last season, it was more route one. There is a lot more chance to pass the ball now.
“You get options from Morgaro Gomis or you can play back to Alim Ozturk because our centre-backs can play with the ball as well. You aren’t scared to give the ball to anyone in tight situations because you know you’re going to get an option.
“I’ve always said I’m a centre-back but I can play anywhere across the back line and I will play anywhere across the back line if I’m asked to. Every player has a favourite position where they think they can perform at their best. For me, that’s centre-back. I can perform equally as well at right-back and left-back. I’m enjoying my football just now so hopefully I can keep my run in the team going.”
Like Hearts and Queen of the South, Raith’s opening two league matches produced maximum points. That makes tomorrow’s encounter a top-of-the-table encounter in which a certain Christian Nade faces his former club for the first time since leaving Tynecastle four years ago.
“We’ve played against Raith a few times,” recalled McGhee. “There was pre-season last year and then we got them in the League Cup. They’re a really dangerous team. They can defend well and they’re really good on the counter-attack. They beat Rangers last year in the final of the Ramsdens Cup and I thought they did really well in that game. Their counter-attacks are something we will need to look out for.”