Hearts 2, Stenhousemuir 1: Late Craig Halkett brace spares Jambos' blushes
A late double from Craig Halkett spared Hearts from Betfred Cup embarrassment in what was a wholly uncomfortable evening for the home support.
The Tynecastle side dominated almost from first whistle to last against League Two Stenhousemuir but, after being denied on several occasions by former Hibs goalkeeper Graeme Smith, the hosts found themselves staring at a humiliating defeat when the part-timers snatched the lead through Mark McGuigan in their first notable attack in the 77th minute.
With Hearts fans fearing the worst and turning on their misfiring team, Halkett came to the rescue with two goals in the last eight minutes, easing the tension and elevating Craig Levein’s to the top of Group A ahead of Saturday’s trip to East Fife.• READ MORE - How the Hearts players rated in Wednesday's Betfred Cup win over StenhousemuirThe manager made three changes to the side that started the 2-0 win at Cowdenbeath last week, with John Souttar, Aaron Hickey and Jamie Walker replacing Christophe Berra, Bobby Burns and Dario Zanatta.
Stenhousemuir had made life difficult for Hearts on each of their previous two visits to Tynecastle. On their last trip to Gorgie, for a Scottish Cup tie in January 2000, the Warriors led 2-0 before the hosts staged a fightback to win 3-2. In the last League Cup meeting at Tynecastle, in August 1996, Hearts needed penalties to triumph after a 1-1 draw.
This trend continued last night. Hearts had control of the game from the outset but had to wait until the seventh minute to create their first clear chance. Following a neat build-up, Michael Smith clipped a cross over to the back post, but Steven MacLean’s goalbound header was brilliantly clawed out by Graeme Smith, the veteran former Motherwell and Hibs goalkeeper.
Smith spurned a good chance in the 22nd minute when he shot wide from close range at the end of a flowing build-up involving Conor Washington, Anthony McDonald and Walker. The right-back was then denied by his namesake Smith after getting on the end of another attack inside the box in the 34th minute. Moments later, Sean Clare blazed over the bar from 16 yards out after being teed up by Smith.
Stenhousemuir, who had hitherto been camped in their own half for most of the match, had their first attempt at goal in the 38th minute but Alan Cook’s free-kick from 30 yards out was easily gathered by Zdenek Zlamal.
A minute before the break, Clare produced a good bit of skill before unleashing a powerful left-footed shot from the edge of the box which was beaten away by the impressive Smith. The half-time whistle was greeted by boos from a home support disappointed by their team’s inability to make their superiority count.
Hearts continued to dominate possession after the break, and after Washington threatened within seconds of the restart, Walker curled one just over from outside the box in the 50th minute. A minute later, Souttar saw a stinging 25-yard strike pushed over by Smith
Hearts felt they should have had a penalty for handball in the 52nd minute when MacLean’s half-volley from a Walker was blocked on the line by Andy Munro. The Tynecastle side endured further frustration when they were denied four times in quick succession during a remarkable goalmouth scramble as keeper Smith blocked attempts by Smith and Oliver Bozanic, and Scott McLaughlin somehow stopped Walker and Washington converting. This moment encapsulated a largely exasperating evening for the hosts.
Levein introduced Uche Ikpeazu and Jake Mulraney in place of McDonald and MacLean in the 55th minute and then sent Aidan Keena on shortly after in place of Washington, who appeared to have a problem with his eye.
Ikpeazu missed a couple of opportunities from inside the box before Hearts were hit by the ultimate sucker punch in the 77th minute as Stenny counter-attacked and McGuigan knocked in Cook’s cross from the left at the near post. The home support were apoplectic with rage as they digested the prospect of one of their most ignominious results of the modern era, but relief arrived within five minutes as Halkett popped up to drive home the equaliser after a Clare corner fell to him 15 yards out. The former Livingston captain completed his salvage job with three minutes left when he looped a header beyond Smith from a Mulraney cross.