HEARTS have made it clear that winning promotion back to the top flight is the number one priority this term. That attitude cost them a place in the next round of the Petrofac Training Cup but despite the flak he received from some quarters in the aftermath of that defeat to Livingston, manager Robbie Neilson again opted to make sweeping changes, making seven switches in personnel for the trip to Ochilview.
Scorers: Stenhousemuir - Millar (38); Hearts - Oliver (6), McHattie (31)
A weakened side, on paper it still looked too strong for Scott Booth’s side and so it proved as they got down to the business of proving it on the artificial grass.
By the time Hearts opened the scoring in the fourth minute, the signs were already ominous, Gary Oliver’s goal simply confirming the visitors’ early superiority. The danger had been posed down the flanks and from the right hand side David Smith unleashed the cross into the area and Oliver used the outside of his right boot to wrong-foot Greg Fleming in the home goal and find the net.
It was the reward from wave after wave of Hearts attack as Jason Holt enjoyed all the freedom he desired to roam the midfield in support of the men on both wings, while the movement of young James Keatings and Oliver made life uncomfortable for their hosts. But as they got to grips with the speed of the play and Hearts’ game plan, they settled down and started to hold a high line and press the Hearts rearguard. In the 17th minute, it served up their first attempt on goal when Ross Meechan got a cross in for Kris Faulds to attack. They followed that up with a corner and confidence must have been beginning to swell. That would have been bolstered further when Hearst had to rejig the backline, with Jordan McGhee limping off with a thigh injury.
But a minute later, Hearts reasserted themselves, adding to their goal tally when some neat play, this time down the left wing, saw Holt slide a lovely weighted ball through the defence for Kevin McHattie to rush on to and slot beyond Fleming.
Credit to the part-timers, they didn’t crumble. They had lost five goals in the league on Saturday and were in no mood to leak any more. They even pulled one back seven minutes later when the dishevelled Hearts defence allowed Martin Grehan to pull them about and Kieran Miller found the space to get the finish.
Booth’s players weren’t giving up and as the second half got under way, they made two substitutions, with Colin McManamin joining in the hunt for the equaliser.
They ensured the game was a lot tighter and edgier that it should have been given Hearts’ early dominance. Neilson’s men continued to carve out a glut of openings but they didn’t have the monopoly on them. Exciting and at times end to end, it was a compelling cup tie.
Two minutes after the restart David Smith swiped the cross in for Oliver but his header glanced wide. At the other end Grehan’s header was just over.
But immediately Hearts raged forward again and David Smith’s shot had to be stopped by Fleming, who was to go on to torment the Hearts attackers as he foiled one opportunity after another.
Osman Sow was another who tried and tried to find a way past Fleming but when Scott Robinson’s free kick picked him out at the back post he couldn’t find the target.
Then just before the hour mark hearts must have fluttered in the away dug out as Stenhousemuir came close to getting the equaliser. Miller shot from outside the box but it was parried by Hollis and the keeper made it a quality double save, getting in the way of McMenamin’s close range effort from the rebound.
In the 67th minute neat interplay on the edge of the area and some determined running saw Jamie Walker through one on one with the keeper who managed to save with his feet and the longer Stenhousemuir remained in the game the more emboldened they became.
Faulds tried from distance in the 71st minute, his shot curling towards the top corner forcing a fully-extended leap from Hollis to pluck it from the air.
Racing back up the field it was Sow who was direct but although he fended off the attentions of the defence, with only Fleming to beat, it was the keeper who came out on top.