Cup ties in the deepest Forth Valley are not for the fainthearted but Hearts negotiated this one with minimum fuss.
They survived a stern examination of their credentials by Stenhousemuir in the second half to preserve a 2-1 lead and progress into today’s League Cup third round draw.
Goals by Gary Oliver and Kevin McHattie had the visitors 2-0 ahead and seemingly cruising with little more than half an hour played. Injuries to defender Jordan McGhee and striker James Keatings disrupted their flow, and the dynamic Kieran Miller scored to reduce the deficit.
In the second half, Stenhousemuir belied their part-time status in League One to apply sustained pressure on the visitors. They forced a series of important saves from goalkeeper Lee Hollis, who put in a commanding display after losing four goals on his debut at Livingston last week.
Hearts also broke forward on several occasions, but Stenhousemuir keeper Greg Fleming was in defiant form. Ultimately, the Gorgie club held firm in defence and head coach Robbie Neilson admitted to some relief at the final whistle.
“It’s a cup tie so it was always going to be difficult and we knew that before the game,” he said. “I thought we played really well for the first 15 or 20 minutes and we got a couple of goals. Sometimes when that happens the guys take their foot off the gas a wee bit and think it’s too easy. Then things start to get a bit sloppy.
“Stenhousemuir got a goal but I didn’t think we were under a lot of pressure. We probably had at least six one-on-ones with their keeper. If you don’t score one or two, then it gets to the last ten minutes and they start shelling balls up the park. Then you’re worried in case they get a flick on and you want your centre-halves to deal with it.”
That very situation arose in the dying seconds of stoppage time. A high ball landed at the unmarked Stewart Greacen at the back post but his tame attempt at a finish bounced narrowly wide. “That’s what happens in cup games, they stick everyone up there,” continued Neilson. “I think they had eight guys in the box. Even if they got the equaliser, it just means we would’ve needed another half-hour to break them down again. I was always confident we would.”
Neilson admitted the chances Hearts fashioned should have been converted. “We’re through after going there and playing in a big atmosphere. I’m just happy to get through, to be honest, but there are a lot of things we need to work on,” he continued. “We didn’t move the ball as quickly as we could. The pleasing thing is we’re getting there and creating chances.
“When we did get into top gear we got in behind them no problem. When we played four or five good passes, we got an opportunity. We just didn’t do that often enough. It was breaking down and people got slack and didn’t pick the right options.
“We should score goals. When our players go through one-on-one with the keeper, they should score at the end of the day. We kind of paid the price at the end by having some pressure on top of us. I thought their goalkeeper did well but ultimately we should have scored goals.”
There was no complaining about Hearts’ finishing early in the match. The teenage Oliver dispatched the first goal after only five minutes looking cooler than an ice bucket challenge. He used the outside of his right foot to convert David Smith’s cross, which allowed Hearts to begin dictating play.
McHattie produced a controlled, low finish for the second after the outstanding Jason Holt played an impish pass through a defender’s legs. However, the loss of McGhee with a suspected dead leg and then Keatings with a knock disrupted the visitors’ rhythm.
Midfielder Kieran Miller scored for Stenhousemuir from Martin Grehan’s lay-off and that injected belief into Scott Booth’s players for the second half. They restarted strongly when Grehan’s header from Ross Meechan’s cross looped just over the Hearts crossbar. Hollis also repelled another driven shot by Miller and, at that point, Hearts were notably disjointed in defence.
They still managed to break forward at pace, with David Smith and substitute Osman Sow both having efforts at goal. Fleming’s fingertips denied teenager Liam Smith a first competitive goal on 63 minutes. Sow headed the resultant corner off the bar and Fleming stopped Jamie Walker’s shot with his right foot moments later.
Kris Faulds tested Hollis with a curling attempt before Fleming again denied Sow one-on-one at the opposite end. The Swedish striker produced an outrageous piece of skill to evade Alan Lithgow on 78 minutes on the Stenhousemuir byeline. He teed up Walker but the young winger’s wayward shot soared over the goal from 12 yards.
Recent signing Adam Eckersley replaced McHattie with minutes left to make his Hearts debut. After the late scare through Greacen’s chance, Neilson’s players ended the night grateful for their victory and the cup progress that went with it. Even Booth, the Stenhousemuir manager, commended them and also offered praise for his own team’s performance.
“I’ve got to give my players credit for the effort and the way they played,” said the former Scotland striker. “They controlled spells of the game against a really strong, young, Hearts side.
“We’ve seen so far this season and in pre-season that they can really compete. They’ve got amazing pace and flair and a little bit of experience. The players they bring in are excellent. Robbie and the management team at Hearts should really be happy with themselves with what they’ve done so far.”