When he needed it most, more than at any point in his two-year reign as manager, Craig Levein’s team stepped up and delivered for him.
On a night when defeat would have seen his stock in the eyes of supporters dip to an all-time low, the embattled Hearts manager earned some much-needed relief as his team overcame Motherwell in monsoon conditions to reach the quarter-finals of the Betfred Cup.
A couple of goals late in the first half from Northern Ireland internationalists Michael Smith and Conor Washington ultimately proved enough to secure a well-deserved victory and send the 1782 travelling Hearts fans bounding out of rain-lashed Fir Park with hope restored that this season can be notably better than the last two despite its unconvincing start.
Levein made four changes to the side that struggled to a 0-0 draw against Ross County last weekend, with new goalkeeper Joel Pereira taking over from the off-form Zdenek Zlamal between the sticks while Aaron Hickey, Andy Irving and Jake Mulraney replaced Aidan White, Steven Naismith and Uche Ikpeazu. Glenn Whelan, who also signed this week, was listed among the substitutes.
Hearts had the first opportunity of the evening in the eighth minute when they won a penalty after Washington flicked the ball up against the hand of Charles Dunne during a scramble in the box. With Levein savouring the prospect of a nerve-settling early goal, Sean Clare’s spot-kick rebounded off Mark Gillespie’s left-hand post.
Thankfully for the visitors, this spurned chance didn’t prove to be a key moment. Hearts were generally doing a good job of containing Motherwell, but they had a let-off in the 22nd minute when Hickey had to clear Sherwin Seedorf’s effort off the line after Pereira had fumbled a Jermain Hylton shot.
A minute later Mulraney ran on to a Washington lay-off and saw his powerful drive from 20 yards out parried by Gillespie. Hearts had another promising attack in the 27th minute, when Craig Halkett won the ball midway inside his own half and powered forward into opposition territory before slipping a lovely pass through to Washington. As the striker delivered a tantalising ball across the penalty area, Motherwell defender Dunne did just enough to stop the in-rushing Walker getting a free shot at goal.
For the third game running, Hearts were forced into a substitution because of injury. After losing John Souttar at Aberdeen and then Steven Naismith against Ross County last weekend, Walker had to be withdrawn in the 38th minute after taking a knock, with Steven MacLean sent on in his place. As the heavens opened over Fir Park, Levein could have been forgiven for thinking ‘it never rains, but it pours.’
Within three minutes, however, the manager’s fortune finally turned for the better as his team took the lead. Washington lofted a pass out to the right for his fellow Northern Irishman Smith and the right-back stepped inside before firing an exquisite left-footed shoot beyond he helpless Gillespie from the edge of the box.
Things got even better for the visitors in first-half stoppage time when they won another penalty after Mulraney latched on to Smith’s pass and was brought crashing to the ground as Gillespie came sliding out at his feet. This time Washington took the kick and the Northern Ireland striker emphatically fired home his first goal for Hearts.
The visiting support danced gleefully under a relentless Lanarkshire downpour as their team went in at the break two goals to the good and seemingly re-energised.
Motherwell made a double substitution for the start of the second half, but it was Hearts, buoyed by their strong finish to the first period, who continued to look the likelier scorers, with Mulraney and Clare both having shots at goal from outside the box after driving at the Motherwell defence.
Just when Hearts looked to be in full command, however, the hosts pulled one back in the 61st minute when substitute Chris Long ran on to a pass from Liam Polworth and slotted an angled shot beyond Pereira from eight yards out.
Given their recent frailties, this could have been a signal for Hearts to implode. Instead they regrouped, regained their composure and saw out a much-needed victory without ever looking like conceding an equaliser. Indeed they almost added some sheen to the scoreline when sub Aidan White was denied by Gillespie after forcing himself into a clear scoring position in the closing minutes.
Motherwell: Gillespie, Grimshaw, Gallagher, Dunne, Tait, Polworth, Campbell (Ilic 78), Donnelly, Seedorf, Scott (Long 46), Hylton (Cole 46). Subs Not Used: Carson, Maguire, Livingstone, Semple.
Hearts: Joel Pereira, Michael Smith, Halkett, Berra, Hickey, Clare (Bozanic 88), Damour, Irving, Walker (MacLean 38),Washington, Mulraney (White 84). Subs Not Used: Whelan, Doyle, Ikpeazu, Dikamona.
Referee: Bobby Madden.