A debut goal from marquee summer signing Kyle Lafferty ensured Hearts began their Betfred Cup campaign with a narrow but deserved victory away to spirited Elgin City.
On a night when anything bar a win would have brought the knives out once more for head coach Ian Cathro, who came under fire after finishing last season with just two wins from 16 games, the Northern Irishman striker’s intervention on the hour-mark meant the harmony which has been returning to Tynecastle over the last couple of months was maintained.
Lafferty’s header, which came at a time when a sense of angst was beginning to grow among Hearts’ 550 travelling fans, allowed the visitors to play out the match in relative comfort.
The Premiership side started with four competitive debutants in the shape of Lafferty, Michael Smith, Ashley Smith-Brown and Christophe Berra, while the two other summer signings, Rafal Grzelak and Cole Stockton, were listed among the substitutes. There was no place in the travelling party for Bjorn Johnsen, whose Hearts future has been the subject of some doubt in recent months, while Arnaud Djoum was excused from the trip as he only returned to training on Monday following his involvement in the Confederations Cup with Cameroon last month. On a glorious night in Moray, many of the travelling support pitched up on the grass bank behind the goal to bask in the sunshine.
They witnessed their team dominate possession early on without properly opening up an Elgin defence which had conceded six away to Dunfermline in their opener.
Hearts’ first notable chance of the match came in the 13th minute when Smith’s cross from the right bounced beyond Esmael Goncalves and fell to Jamie Walker, but the midfielder, who remains the subject of interest from Rangers, saw his low shot from 12 yards out deflected just wide. Walker had the ball in the net three minutes later but was immediately flagged for offside after being presented with an open goal when Berra’s long ball was missed by Elgin goalkeeper Marc Waters.
Smith-Brown then rasped a shot harmlessly over the bar from 20 yards after Don Cowie’s corner broke into his path. It was to be the on-loan Manchester City left-back’s last notable involvement as he limped off in the 28th minute to be replaced by Grzelak.
Elgin, who were working tigerishly in the heat to keep their visitors at bay, gradually began to force their way into the match but were unable to trouble Hearts goalkeeper.
Two minutes before the half-time break, Cowie spurned a decent opening when he blazed a volley high over after Lafferty had nodded a cross-field pass from Berra down into his path.
Hearts reclaimed control of proceedings in the second half and after Lafferty went close with a glancing header, Goncalves had a powerful low shot from 20 yards saved by Waters.
Any sense of anxiety beginning to build in the Hearts ranks was significantly eased when they made the breakthrough on the hour. Goncalves won a free-kick wide on the left, took it himself, rolled it to Grzelak and the Pole’s cross was nodded in by Lafferty.
Walker then fizzed a low right-footed shot just wide in the 75th minute from the edge of the box in what would prove his last act before being replaced by Rory Currie.