Winning is a habit in football and it is certainly a welcome trait at Tynecastle Park just now. Seven games into their competitive season, Hearts are unbeaten with six victories and a draw. The latest success came at East End Park on Saturday as the Edinburgh club reached the Betfred Cup quarter-finals.
This time, there wasn’t the panache of a 4-1 win at Hamilton or the adrenalin brought by beating Celtic. This was more gutsy and dogged. None of the 4493 travelling fans in the 8601 crowd complained, for every winning team is sometimes required to grind it out.
The decisive goal was delivered by the Hearts midfielder Olly Lee 11 minutes from the end, just as the prospect of extra-time was looming. Dunfermline hit the post in the first half then forced Zdenek Zlamal into two stunning saves in the second, but a goal eluded them.
Lee’s winner propelled his club into the last eight and a home meeting with Motherwell, meaning they are just two games from the final of a competition they have not won since 1962. “That’s the way you have to look at it,” said John Souttar, Hearts’ captain in the absence of the injured Christophe Berra. “We were all talking about it before the game, the boys who had been to finals. We all agreed that there are horrible games along the way when you have to grind out a result.
“If you are at Hampden, nobody is going to be saying: ‘Oh, remember that game at Dunfermline was terrible.’ You’ve got to strive for that, getting to Hampden, because it’s something this club hasn’t achieved in a few years. As a group, we have that as a target.
“I went to two finals with Dundee United and, on one of the runs, we came close to losing at Dumbarton – but nobody cared when we got to the final. Games like that, you grind it out and nobody remembers them.”
The Championship hosts deserved plenty credit for causing their Premiership guests problems. Faissal El Bakhtaoui struck the goalframe and had an acrobatic attempt saved by Zlamal. Lee’s controlled strike from 16 yards then broke the deadlock before Zlamal saved the best for last – a point-blank stop from Dunfermline substitute Aidan Connolly in stoppage-time. “It was a tough draw, going to Dunfermline, who have been doing well in the league,” said Souttar. “A cup tie changes the nature of the game. It wasn’t pretty but it didn’t matter. It was very similar to the game we had away to Raith two seasons ago, and we drew that one. So we showed a bit of character to grind it out with a great save from Bobby at the end.”
Zlamal’s nickname “Bobby” has an England connection. “That’s what he asked to get called – because his uncle looked like Bobby Charlton or something? It’s better than pronouncing his first name, anyway! He was more like Gordon Banks on Saturday. He wasn’t in training the day before,” joked Souttar.
The final stages of the game saw Hearts under pressure. Aaron Hughes was withdrawn at half-time with a calf problem and Souttar found himself with a third different central defensive partner in two games as Peter Haring stepped back from midfield. Like the previous week against Celtic after Berra was stretchered off, the young Scot stepped up. He blocked shots, cut out crosses and headed clear to preserve another clean sheet. He performed like someone aged 31 rather than 21. “I have crammed a lot in. I started my career really young, obviously, with Jackie McNamara putting me into that United team. It was pretty young to start, especially for a centre-half. I feel I’ve learned a lot every day.
“Playing next to guys like Aaron and Christophe, working under the gaffer here, it helps – and I strive to get better every day. That’s hopefully what I’m doing. Even when Christophe came into the team, I’ll admit I probably wasn’t thinking defensively.
“I was only thinking about getting on the ball and starting attacks. That’s just naturally what young players do. I’ve matured as a person, matured physically, that has helped. I enjoy defending now. That’s something Christophe – an out-and-out defender, an incredible defender – has brought on in me. The gaffer said to me when he was bringing Christophe in that I was to learn from him and ask him questions every day. He has taught me a lot.”
Souttar praised the huge away support who made up half of the East End Park crowd. “That doesn’t surprise me. It’s what our fans do. Like Hamilton away, if we are going well, they will back us. It’s important to keep doing well and keep them here, because they give us such a lift.”