Experience told in the end at Tynecastle Park as Ross County dispensed with Hearts Colts in the first round of the Irn-Bru Challenge Cup. Billy McKay’s two first-half goals proved decisive, but the youngsters in maroon deserved great credit for running their experienced guests so close.
Aidan Keena produced a stunning strike late in the first half to reduce the two-goal deficit. Hearts then put everything into the second 45 minutes in an effort to force a penalty shootout. However, County’s nous and know-how helped them see the game out to progress.
This tournament permits colts teams to use players up to under-21 level plus another two above that age. As well as calling on first-team members Harry Cochrane, Bobby Burns, Callumn Morrison, Anthony McDonald and Aidan Keena, the hosts used midfielder Ryan Edwards and goalkeeper Colin Doyle as their overage players.
Doyle, the Ireland internationalist, was making his first competitive appearance since joining Hearts but endured a difficult start as County moved ahead on four minutes. The keeper’s ball out from the back unintentionally landed at the feet of McKay 35 yards from goal. The striker took a touch before lofting a precise finish over the Doyle into the net.
Despite the vast gulf in experience, Hearts did not look overwhelmed and enjoyed a fair amount of possession. Edwards executed a beautiful turn away from David Keillor-Dunn before shooting on 21 minutes, and it required a smart save from teenager Ross Munro in the visitors’ goal to prevent an equaliser.
The Highlanders doubled their advantage on the half-hour mark as McKay displayed his clinical edge once again. He fastened on to a through ball in behind the Hearts defence and clipped a neat finish beyond Doyle into the far corner of the net.
County were making light of the fact their team detailed ten changes from Saturday’s league win at Dunfermline. Only centre-back Callum Morris retained his place, but they were firmly in command with a two-goal lead. Midfielder Harry Paton, 20, was facing many of his former Riccarton academy friends and looked a composed presence throughout.
The Hearts youngsters commendably did not deviate from their ingrained passing philosophy. Whenever they had the ball it stayed on the ground and was worked through different phases of the pitch using combination play. That led to them reducing the deficit on 44 minutes.
Keena charged forward and neatly exchanged passes with Cochrane. The Irishman took the return ball and fired it low beyond Munro with considerable power. That offered the Colts considerable hope for the second period.
McKay shot wide from an angle on 55 minutes when most inside the stadium expected him to complete his hat-trick. Hearts then escaped a likely penalty when centre-back Daniel Baur appeared to foul Ryan Dow just inside the box, but referee Gavin Duncan allowed play to continue.
At the other end, Keena received a caution for simulation after appearing to be bundled over inside the box. The striker cut a frustrated figure as he tried to source the goal which would level this tie. He came tantalisingly close on 70 minutes after Dylan Dykes’ weak header back towards Munro. Keena lofted the loose ball goalwards but could only watch it drop narrowly wide of the goalkeeper’s right post.
The Hearts Colts coaches, Andy Kirk and John Rankin, spent time discussing their options in the technical area. They then introduced forward Euan Henderson for midfielder Alex Petkov in the hope of gaining parity. Moments later, the substitute almost got his head to Bobby Burns’ cross.
The final ten minutes saw maroon shirts lodged in the opposition half. They almost scored the desired equaliser when Burns rose to meet Morrison’s cross from the right, but the Northern Irishman’s header crashed against the crossbar. With that, time had run out on Hearts’ hopes of taking the tie straight to penalties.
Andy Kirk was pleased with his young players’ endeavour and felt they matched their Championship opponents.
“It’s a hard one to take. It’s small margins in football,” he said. “We were six inches away from taking it to penalties with Bobby’s header. The boys kept going right to the end. I’d have liked to see more of that in the second half and see how Ross County would’ve coped.
“Aidan’s goal showed what we were capable of. When we keep the ball and we move it, we find space in between the lines, then we can be really dangerous. The goal was fantastic. The link-up play, the movement, the finish – it was a great strike.
“The game was a good experience. I still thought we had a lot of talent on the pitch and I wouldn’t say County were any better than us. They were more experienced, but that will come for our boys.
“They’re playing at Tynecastle in a game with a competitive edge. If you win, you’re through. They don’t get that often. Cammy Logan, for example, is only 16 and has just joined us full-time so it’s great for boys like that.
“It’s disappointing because I feel we could have won that game.”
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Doyle; Logan, Hamilton, Baur, Burns; Petkov (Henderson 73), Cochrane; McDonald, Edwards, Morrison; Keena (Moore 79). Unused subs: Mason, Smith, Currie, Gajda, Ritchie.
Ross County (4-4-2): Munro; T Dingwall, Morris, Dykes, Demetriou; Stewart (Morrison 83), Dow, Paton (Gallagher 89), Keillor-Dunn (R Dingwall 61); McKay, Graham. Unused subs: Fox, Fraser, Kelly, Maciver.
Referee: Gavin Duncan.