In terms of kicking off a bright new era, there are probably better ways to get the party started than a low-key 2-0 friendly defeat in front of little more than 100 spectators at a venue called The Pavilion.
Nonetheless, Robbie Neilson was entitled to reflect on several signs of encouragement from his first match as Hearts head coach.
Ludogorets Razgrad are on a different level to anything the Gorgie side will face in the SPFL Championship, but the Bulgarian champions, who reached the last 16 of last season’s Europa League and who had just beaten Steaua Bucharest in a friendly, were kept at bay by the Jambos until the final quarter when they eked out two goals as their superior quality began to shine through within the impressive Leigh Sports Village complex last night.
Brazilian Marcelino broke the deadlock with a deflected effort midway through the second half before the Edinburgh side fell further behind courtesy of a Ludogorets penalty. Scott Robinson’s late red card for a second bookable offence meant the game ended on a sour note for Hearts, but Neilson said: “I was really pleased with the boys. I thought we played really well in the first half. We did a lot of the things we’ve been working on in the last few days and all the boys were willing to take the ball.
“For the first 20-25 minutes of the second half we played well again. We didn’t create a lot of opportunities but we kept our shape well. When they got the goal they got a bit of confidence and we found it difficult to get a foothold back in the game. It became a bit scrappy but it was a good workout.”
As if to underline the gulf between the two clubs, the ambitious Ludogorets, who possess a raft of Bulgaria internationalists and a couple of handy Brazilians in their ranks, warmed up for the match wearing Champions League vests as they prepare for their second qualifying round tie in Europe’s elite competition later this month. Hearts, meanwhile, started with full-backs who had never played a minute of first-team football before in Liam Smith, 18, and Liam Henderson, 17, with the latter having just been plucked from boys’ club football.
The Jambos kicked off with four teenagers in a team which was supplemented by the experience of new faces Neil Alexander and Morgaro Gomis, the two old heads of the squad. Another summer recruit, Alim Ozturk, started alongside captain Danny Wilson in central defence, while new striker James Keatings was one of 11 players to come on at half-time as Neilson changed his entire team in order to give everybody game time. He even sent young centre-back Liam Gordon on late in the game, meaning that 23 players – including trialist Lee Currie – sampled game time in the club’s first friendly since returning for pre-season last week.
“Sometimes when you put players on in dribs and drabs it disrupts the flow of the game, so we decided earlier in the week that because we brought enough players, we would change the entire team at half-time,” Neilson said. “We had two teams of 11 and got Liam Gordon on at the end so it was good to get everyone a game.”
In a match watched by director of football Craig Levein, who stood alone away from the dugout, Neilson was buoyed by the way his younger players held their own against such testing opposition. “The boys [regardless of age] all train together and I think it’s great for young boys to play with experienced players as well,” he said.
“We had Angus Beith playing alongside Morgaro Gomis in midfield and that’s a great learning curve for him to see how Morgaro plays the game. A lot of young boys came in and did well.
Liam Henderson’s only been in at the club for four or five days but he played at left-back beside Danny and Alim. It was good to integrate some of the young boys and give them a wee bit of experience of playing a first-team game against a very good team.”
Early indications are that Alexander will be one of the on-field leaders of this new-look Hearts team. Throughout the first half he was the loudest player on the field, constantly keeping his young defence up to their task. On the few occasions the Bulgarians found a way through, the former Rangers keeper looked accomplished.
Ahead of him, Wilson and Alim were steady, while Gomis had some impressive moments alongside the feisty Beith in the engine room.
There were few clear opportunities for the four young attackers in the first half, but, once they get up to speed, the movement shown in fleeting glimpses by Jamie Walker, Billy King, David Smith and Gary Oliver will surely pose problems for rivals in the Championship.
The new-look attack after the break had just as little joy against a well-organised Bulgarian defence, but Hearts could claim to have been pretty comfortable themselves until the concession of a cheap 66th-minute goal when Marcelino’s shot from inside the box spun up off a combination of Brad McKay and Kevin McHattie, who were sliding in to block. The ball looped over young goalkeeper Jack Hamilton, who raced frantically back towards his goal and clawed it out, only for the referee’s assistant to indicate that it had crossed the line. Three minutes later, Ludogorets captain Hristo Zlatinski converted a penalty after Jason Holt, who played wide right for part of the second half, was deemed to have blocked a cross with his hand.
The game descended into something of a squabble in the closing stages as a few feisty challenges and subsequent flashpoints ensured raised hackles all round. Robinson incurred the contempt of the Bulgarians on more than one occasion and after being booked for pushing an opponent away following what he felt was a dangerous tackle, he was then dismissed at the end for what appeared to be dissent as he arrived to provide back-up for team-mate McKay, who had become embroiled in a spat with one of his foes.
Robinson trudged off shaking his head in bewilderment but Neilson hopes his midfielder will have learnt a lesson. “I spoke to Pum after the game,” he said. “He got himself a needless booking and when you play against European teams, they’re clever and they know you’ve been booked.
“When the game started to get a bit heated, they knew who to target. They targeted him and did him over, but it’s one he’ll learn from. He’s still a young player who is learning but he needs to learn that there are times in games when you need to be really careful.”
Hearts first-half: Alexander, L Smith, Henderson, Wilson, Ozturk, Gomis, Walker, Beith, Oliver, D Smith, King.
Hearts second-half: Hamilton, Paterson, McKay, McGhee (Gordon 80), McHattie, Robinson, Currie, Holt, Nicholson, Carrick, Keatings.
Ludogorets: Cvorovic, Choco, Barthe, Aleksandrov, Vitinha, Zlatinski, Lumu, Hernandez, Wanderison, Abalo, Bezjak.