Tony Watt was paraded at half-time after signing for Hearts on a season’s loan from Charlton Athletic and promised to start scoring as soon as he could.
But this won’t be soon enough as far as Hearts’ European ambitions for this season are concerned. How Watt’s new side needed these goals last night. Hearts scored once and while it was Conor Sammon’s first for the club, the header remained significant only for this comparatively minor detail.
Hearts were reckoned by some to have done the hard work last week in Malta. Sadly, last night – the first time a Scottish team has lost to a Maltese club – again underlined how vulnerable a side remains when required to build on a 0-0 draw earned away from home.
After wasting a number of first-half chances, including a penalty by Prince Buaben, Hearts reaped a whirlwind of fury from their own fans when conceding twice within 11 second-half minutes. The tie was suddenly all but over.
Christian Bubalovic struck first, after 55 minutes, before Edward Herrera put the away side firmly in control with a second, after 66 minutes. This meant Hearts had to score three times to reach the next round. It was a dire situation that provoked a furious response from the home fans.
These fans did then offer some stout backing as Hearts sought to pull off a miracle comeback, scoring once through Sammon’s header. Over 17 minutes remained for them to score twice and while there were goalmouth dramas, Robbie Neilson’s side could not conjure up goals.
But that they were even in this desperate position was hard to credit for the fans, who booed the team – and head coach Robbie Neilson – off at the end. More regrettably, a good portion of the fans jeered when Sammon, pictured, was announced as man of the match.
The conditions at the start were more consistent with Malta, homeland of the opposition. This stripped Hearts of one hoped-for advantage. After the 0-0 draw last week in Paola, a game played out in oppressive heat, Alim Ozturk suggested it would be interesting to see how Birkirkara fared back in more inclement Edinburgh.
Sadly for Hearts, the sun split the sky and fans seemed to be close to dozing in their seats when the game kicked off. Birkirkara seemed instantly at home, coming close to securing a precious away goal in the opening couple of minutes. Dimitrov Srdan’s cross from the left caused panic in the Hearts box but Pierre Shaun Bajada’s effort was blocked at the back post.
The night air grew cooler, shadows lengthened, and Hearts steadied themselves. They so nearly secured the goal that would have given them momentum, if not complete comfort, after 27 minutes. Jamie Walker’s acrobatic effort from Callum Paterson’s cross bounced up on to the bar before going over.
One stumble from Liam Smith, while the ball was at his feet, caused slight concern. But the act of serious self-sabotage was still to come, delight quickly turning to despair after Sam Nicholson brilliantly earned a penalty that was wasted by Buaben.
Nicholson’s trickery as he hugged the bye-line deserved far better than this outcome. His quick feet flummoxed Cain Attard, who, significantly, or seemingly not in the eyes of Finnish referee Ville Nevalainen, had just been booked for a foul on the same player. Somehow he escaped the same punishment on this occasion, meaning the opponents remained with 11 men. So it felt like a double blow for Hearts when Buaben then failed from the spot.
Neilson was complaining bitterly to the fourth official even before Buaben started his doomed run-up.
The head coach grew yet more agitated when he saw Buaben, who had scored a penalty in the last round against FC Infonet, produce such a weak effort from the spot, low to the keeper’s left. Miroslav Kopric easily blocked the shot before the ball was cleared.
Credit must be paid to Hearts for quickly settling again and they so nearly edged ahead in spectacular fashion through Walker after Kopric was stranded at the edge of his box. Walker’s delicate chip from out wide cleared the keeper, by now frantically retreating towards his goal, but was cleared off the line by Emerson.
All the Hearts fans were saying was, give us a goal.
One nearly came shortly after half-time after Faycal Rherras produced a cross that was begging for Sammon to meet it at the edge of the six-yard box. Sadly for the big Irishman, it was just too far in front of him.
If the groans incited by this passage of play were loud, it was nothing to the frustration, nay anger, which followed Hearts going 1-0 down. Bubalovic produced the goal that felt like a dagger in the hosts’ breast. The defender finished well on the half -volley after Igor Rossi blocked Herrera’s shot. Worse was to follow as the visitors took advantage of Hearts swarming forward, Vito Plut’s cross-field pass sending Herrera clear.
The forward finished well through the legs of Jack Hamilton. Sammon’s header into the corner from Paterson’s cross was a source of hope. But Hearts had given themselves too much to do, and too little time in which to do it.