A makeshift and ultra-youthful Hearts side put up a spirited display as they suffered a narrow defeat to Kilmarnock on the last day of the Scottish Premiership season.
Lee Erwin’s early goal ultimately proved decisive at a sun-kissed Rugby Park on an afternoon when little was expected of a visiting side severely depleted in numbers.
Due to injury and suspension, Craig Levein was forced to make seven outfield changes to the side that started the midweek victory over Hibs. Only Harry Cochrane, David Milinkovic and Kyle Lafferty remained in a starting line-up that included five teenagers, four of whom were 17 or younger. This number included 16-year-old defenders Chris Hamilton and Cammy Logan, with the latter effectively seventh in line for the right-back berth. The absence of Michael Smith, Marcus Godinho, Connor Randall, Jamie Brandon, Liam Smith and Jay Sandison for a variety of reasons underlined the depth of Hearts’ plight. The manager also chose to give goalkeeper Jack Hamilton his first start since August, with No.1 Jon McLaughlin the only senior player on the substitutes’ bench.
Kilmarnock, by contrast, were able to field a team close to full as they looked to end a memorable season under Steve Clarke, the freshly-named Scottish Football Writers’ manager of the year. And it came as little surprise that they were to enjoy the majority of the pressure throughout the month.
After Greg Kiltie and Aaron Tshibola both tested Hamilton early on, Kilmarnock took the lead in the tenth minute when Erwin forced his way down the left and fired an angled shot beyond Hamilton.
Hearts had a great chance to level in the 21st minute when Milinkovic burst up the left and released Lafferty through the middle. The Northern Irishman looked all set to net his 20th goal of the season but Jamie MacDonald did well to push his low attempt behind for a corner.
Hearts’ plight was exacerbated by injuries to teenagers Harry Cochrane and Logan which led to another two 16-year-olds, Connor Smith and Leeroy Makovora, coming on for debuts. Despite the adversity, the visitors generally kept things competitive until the last ten minutes when they were reliant on Hamilton making four excellent saves to deny Kris Boyd, Erwin twice and Eamonn Brophy.
Kilmarnock (4-3-3): MacDonald; O’Donnell, S Boyd, Findlay, Taylor; Tshibola, Wilson (Burke 79), Mulumbu; Kiltie (Brophy 55), K Boyd (Cameron 90), Erwin. Unused subs: MacKay, Greer, Simpson, Spencer.
Booked: Taylor (49)
Hearts (4-1-4-1): J Hamilton; Logan (Makovora 64), Hughes, C Hamilton, Moore; Cochrane (C Smith 44); McDonald (Henderson 73), Cowie, Callachan, Milinkovic; Lafferty. Unused subs: McLaughlin, Currie, Ritchie, Ward.
Booked: C Hamilton (48), C Smith (60)
Ref: Stephen Finnie