THOSE Hearts fans who were bewildered by manager Robbie Neilson’s decision to effectively field his reserves against Livingston in the Petrofac Training Cup last week better prepare for some more cup tie discombobulation tonight.
For having bounced back from the 4-1 defeat by Livingston to smash Raith Rovers 4-0 with a genuine first XI on Saturday, going top of the Championship in the process, Hearts will again ring the changes for their League Cup second-round tie away to Stenhousemuir.
That will automatically bring criticism that Hearts are not fielding their strongest team, and it is hard to avoid that conclusion, but manager Robbie Neilson and his fellow coaches say they are seeing a bigger picture.
Assistant head coach Stevie Crawford knows from personal acquaintance that Ochilview Park is no “gimme” ground, but the Tynecastle staff are determined to give youth a chance, though not perhaps with quite so many changes as last week – maybe six or seven rather than ten.
“I’ve gone there in senior football and it is not an easy place to go,” said Crawford. “I’ve experienced going there as a player in the lower divisions with East Fife. There was a wee bit said last week about giving youngsters opportunities, but we are a development team now and we are going to give youngsters opportunities.
“There will be changes, but the changes we are looking to put in will be guys with more first-team experience. We feel that this team will be strong enough to go out and beat Stenhousemuir.”
Lesson learned, then, but there’s no doubt where Hearts’ priorities lie, with promotion back to the Premiership the be all and end all of this season.
As Crawford said: “Any team goes into a cup competition to get a good cup run. It can lead on to something special, but we know the league is the priority, we want to get back into the top division in Scotland, make no bones about that. That will influence Robbie’s decision on the team he decides to put out. “That’s not being disrespectful or arrogant in any way. We have done our homework, watched Stenhousemuir a minimum of three times among the staff and we know [manager] Scott [Booth] has done a great job since he went there last season.”
Despite the personnel alterations, Hearts are favourites by some distance, as Crawford admitted. He said: “When you are at a club like Hearts, when you are going away to a team that’s a division below, you’re expected to win. But we don’t think as a staff that we’re just going to turn up and come away with a win – that’s disrespectful to Stenhousemuir.”
The changes will almost certainly include the return of Brad McKay who, when he’s not on the bench, actually captains the team on the pitch on occasion.
“I was captain last week –that’s only because there was six 14-year-olds playing!” quipped McKay, who spent a month on loan at Stenhousemuir in 2012. “Only joking, but I was one of the more senior boys in the team. Danny Wilson was out and Scott Robinson was the only other one who has played more games. It’s obviously good for myself to get the captain’s armband because it’s always an honour.
“I do enjoy that responsibility. I look after some of the younger boys in training and I never like to see boys losing confidence. There’s nothing worse, even as a fan, to see a football player with no confidence.
“I never really had someone to say: ‘Listen, it will be all right’. I’ve just almost learned myself, because I know how that feels. If I can just give the boys a wee bit back and teach them how I dealt with it, that’s something I think I would’ve appreciated when I was younger.”
To put that comment in perspective, McKay is 21, showing how young this Hearts squad is overall.
McKay’s protégé last week was James Keatings who duly scored a hat-trick against Raith Rovers. “It’s crazy how quickly things can change,” said McKay. “James wasn’t playing and he was one of the ones I told to keep stronger and told him he would get a chance, as a striker, especially.
“I had a wee joke with James on the bus on Saturday. I was calling him the nervous man. He said he wasn’t and that he had played at Stark’s Park before but I was winding him up, saying ‘you’re nervous about today’.
“But I told him he would score and told him when he scored he would have to move his hand in his celebration like he was shaking. He didn’t do the celebration, though, he got a wee bit excited and ran away.”
McKay and his colleagues say they have bought into Neilson’s philosophy but, if Hearts lose to a lesser foe (on paper) tonight, some fans may wonder if a “rotational policy” really means abandoning the cups to concentrate on the league.
Stenhousemuir leaked five goals to Stirling Albion on Saturday and manager Booth said: “This is a great game to have so soon after the disappointment of Saturday.”