Auchinleck Talbot: Scouting report on Hearts' tricky Scottish Cup opponents
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The defeat in last season’s competition to the Highland League side has been widely described as the worst in the club’s history. It led to supporter protests opposing the management of Robbie Neilson and it was ultimately a surprise the former defender survived the ignominy.
Ten months is a long time in football. Neilson’s position couldn’t be more secure at this moment with Hearts sitting in third place in the cinch Premiership table in their first season back after winning promotion.
However, that goodwill could evaporate in an instant if they follow up the Brora defeat with another embarrassing exit in Ayrshire this weekend. Talbot defeated Hamilton Accies in the last round, recently beat Ayr United in the same competition, and gave Hearts a real scare in 2011/12, the season the Gorgie Road club would go on to last win the trophy.
Tommy Sloan – Talbot’s manager who will celebrate his 19th year in charge later in 2022 – will likely put his side out in a 4-4-1-1 formation. The gameplan will be to keep things tight for the first hour and then try to nick something at the other end. It’s a strategy which worked to perfection in their previous scalps and they’ll adopt it again this Saturday.
This could be a disturbingly uncomfortable day for Hearts unless the squad issues currently affecting the club aren’t resolved by the weekend. Striker Liam Boyce is still struggling with a calf complaint and, with reserve Armand Gnanduillet on his way out and seemingly no longer trusted, they could well go into the game without a recognised striker. Hearts have managed to make it work at points this season with Ben Woodburn or Josh Ginnelly leading the line, but this has typically been through their ability to exploit space in and around the opposing defence. Saturday’s opponents will look to take away as much of that freedom as possible.
The strength of Talbot is their central defence and goalkeeper axis. Craig McCracken and Neill McPherson have been a formidable centre-back partnership for a number of years and, in Andy Leishman, the hosts have a goalkeeper who won’t give up anything easy.
The good news for Hearts is that, if they do get themselves in front early, then it should be a comfortable day for supporters who can begin to enjoy the novelty of a rare day out without the nagging doubts of another potential fiasco. Talbot, even at West of Scotland League level, don’t score an awful lot of goals and they’ll be lucky to get any joy out of a stingy Hearts back-three, not to mention the constant heroics of Scotland No.1 Craig Gordon.
There will be plenty of confidence among the home ranks. Talbot are used to success, and in the likes of McCracken, McPherson, Graham Wilson and Bryan Boylan, they have a number of players conditioned to winning who will fear no opponent at their ground.
Putting the game to bed early will be imperative for the visitors. They don’t want to allow things to remain tight going into the closing stages.