HEARTS youngsters endured Hampden heartbreak last night as Motherwell lifted the first Scottish Youth Cup in their history.
Chris Cadden and Dominic Thomas were the stars in claret and amber 25 years since the Fir Park club’s finest hour at the national stadium – the 1991 Scottish Cup win.
Although the Edinburgh side tried manfully to match their opponents, Motherwell’s pace and strength made the difference. Goals by striker Dylan Mackin and Cadden – via a deflection – put them 2-1 up at half-time. Jordan McGhee’s free-kick had reduced the deficit but David Ferguson scored Motherwell’s third early in the second half. Dario Zanatta again hauled Hearts back into contention before substitute Robbie Leitch – son of former Hearts and Motherwell midfielder Scott – struck a fourth goal. To clinch the trophy, another sub, Dylan Falconer, produced a classy fifth.
Motherwell’s last appearance in the Youth Cup final was back in 1987 when they lost to Celtic. Hearts’ last win came in 2000 but this was the first final in 18 years not involving Rangers or Celtic.
The Youth Cup is strictly an under-20 tournament with no overage players allowed. Both teams fielded strong line-ups and called upon several players with first-team experience. McGhee was the most prominent name in the Hearts team, whilst Cadden had the honour of being Motherwell’s most experienced man, and it showed.
Most players were sampling the national stadium for the first time on what was a chilly evening on the south side of Glasgow. The giant Hampden slopes were, of course, empty, with all of the modest crowd fitting easily into the main stand. It was still a night to behold in the young careers of those involved.
Both teams started at a fairly pedestrian tempo as they tried to feel their way into the match gradually. It took Motherwell to quicken their pace before the deadlock was broken on 21 minutes. Following a Hearts corner, they broke forward at speed and won a free-kick for a foul by Robbie Buchanan. Thomas’ curling delivery from the right wasn’t held by goalkeeper Kelby Mason and Mackin was on hand to convert from close range.
The travelling support from Fir Park had already been making their presence felt, largely through a drum being beaten relentlessly to the east of the main stand. When Mackin’s effort hit the net, the decibel level merely increased as the din echoed around Hampden.
Hearts came close to levelling the scores on 34 minutes. Liam Smith ventured forward from right-back to deliver a teasing ball across the face of the Motherwell goal. Zanatta couldn’t get his head to it and Russell McLean could only hit the side netting at the far post.
Mason then saved a driven attempt by Cadden, who was by now influencing the midfield area. He was on hand to score the second goal with the aid of a deflection on 38 minutes. Allan Campbell, Motherwell’s holding midfielder, was allowed space to drive at the Hearts defence. When he was tackled by Daniel Baur, the ball fell for Cadden to shoot and a ricochet off Baur’s heel took it past Mason and into the net.
Hearts gave themselves a lifeline by halving the deficit two minutes from half-time. After a foul on McLean, McGhee stepped up to angle a well-executed 20-yard free-kick away from Brett Long and into the Motherwell goal. The Edinburgh side knew they needed to lift the pace for the second period against opponents who looked quicker and physically stronger.
Thomas switched to the right flank and continued causing problems with some direct running at the Hearts rearguard. He danced past two opponents on the hour mark and cut the ball back perfectly for David Turnbull. The midfielder’s attempt at goal produced a corner, from which Motherwell increased their lead. Thomas’ delivery was flicked on by Mackin and pushed out by Mason, only for Ferguson to drive the high into the rigging from five yards.
Hearts looked dejected at that moment but recovered quickly for Zanatta to bring the score back to 3-2 on 64 minutes. The Canadian dispossessed Ben Hall 20 yards from goal and ran through to round the goalkeeper and score. He cut inside and shot just over the crossbar moments later as he tried to take matters into his own hands. However, it was not to be.
Mason was required to save Ross MacLean’s strike following another run and cross by Thomas. Then, on 75 minutes, substitute Leitch effectively ended the game as a contest. He took the ball inside from the left flank and planted a precise finish low into Mason’s left-hand corner.
That extinguished Hearts’ last hope of lifting the trophy. Their Lanarkshire opponents were in command and knew they simply had to manage the game properly to see it out. In the final minute of normal time, a neat exchange between Leitch and fellow substitute Falconer put the latter through on goal for a composed finish over Mason. With that, the Scottish Youth Cup was heading to Fir Park for the first time.
Hearts Under-20 coach John Daly said afterwards that his players could learn plenty from the experience. “We had five boys in their first year of full-time football playing in our starting line-up. It says a lot for them that they’ve got to a final,” he insisted. “The future’s bright for the lads but we need to remember how this feels and use it going forward. If we get here again, we can try to go one step further.
“I think we made a couple of more mistakes than Motherwell did and we got punished for it. We started well but goals change games and mistakes change momentum in games. We had more control in the first 20 minutes, then we make a mistake and get punished and momentum swings. Every time we got back in the game, we made a mistake and got punished.”
Mason’s error which led to the first goal was one in particular which proved costly. However, Daly refused to point the finger at any of his players and urged the young goalkeeper to pick himself up quickly.
“It was a difficult night for him. It’s a position where, if you make a mistake, it generally leads to a goal. He’s been fantastic for us since he’s come back from injury and he just has to take it on the chin. It’s a team game and you can’t point fingers at any one individual. We just have to try and learn from it.”
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Mason; L Smith, McGhee, Baur, Henderson; Buchanan, Beith (McKirdy 83); Morrison (MacDonald 64), Zanatta, Moore (Roy 76); McLean. Unused subs: Easton, Jones
Motherwell (4-1-4-1): Long; Watt, Hall, Ferguson, McMillan; Campbell; MacLean (Hastie 90), Turnbull (Leitch 72), Cadden, Thomas; Mackin (Falconer 76). Unused subs: Morrison, Livingstone
Referee: Stewart Luke