Fans vent their fury in Methil but there’s no panic at Hearts
In 2017 they failed to make the cut and last season, following an administrative glitch that cost them points against Cove Rangers, it came down to a final-day showdown against Inverness Caley Thistle. This time around the concluding fixture against East Fife may not have threatened to push up the blood pressure in quite the same way – nevertheless an unsatisfying 1-1 scoreline at the end of the 90 minutes followed by a 7-6 loss in the ensuing penalty shoot-out to League 1 East Fife made it all seem far more laboured than it really ought to have been for Craig Levein’s men.
They still qualified as winners of Group A, but their results were not sufficient to secure a seeding in yesterday’s draw for the last 16.
It was enough for a section of the Hearts fans to vent their spleen in the direction of the manager at New Bayview, perhaps understandably given what had unfolded. Jamie Walker scored his first goal since his return to Tynecastle earlier in the summer, a fine finish after some good work down the right flank by the once again impressive Craig Halkett, after only 15 minutes and it seemed that a handsome margin of victory beckoned.
The goal feast didn’t materialise however, despite the Premiership side continuing to dominate in terms of possession and chances and the door was left tantalisingly ajar at the interval for Darren Young’s impressively drilled East Fife side. They fully grasped the opportunity just nine minutes into the second half when Chris Duggan diverted a Ryan Wallace cross high into the net past Zdenek Zamal and from there onwards all the zip that had characterised the Tynecastle side’s performance dissipated.
Sure they had chances – most notably a shot from Michael Smith, Oliver Bozanic’s well struck free-kick and a squandered close-range cross late on that eluded substitute Steven MacLean – and never really looked in danger of losing another goal and the game, but it was a deflating denouement. The loss of the penalty shootout, which gave the Fifers a crucial bonus point enabling them to claim second spot in the group above Dundee United, merely amplified the downbeat mood of the visiting support. Unsuccessful spot-kicks from Sean Clare, Bozanic and ultimately Aaron Hickey presented former Hearts youth player Aaron Dunsmore with the chance to seal it at the sudden-death stage, which he duly took with calm precision.
Unhappy rumblings from the New Bayview stand aside, did it matter? Levein acknowledged that the supporters had every right to expect Hearts to win, adding “nobody is more disappointed than me” and that he was “annoyed” by the performance. The same lack of incisiveness had reared its head in previous games against Cowdenbeath and Stenhousemuir and is undoubtedly an area of some concern going into the opening fixture of the Premiership campaign against Aberdeen.
Levein was quick to highlight, however, that uneven form in the corresponding stage of the Betfred Cup last season was immediately followed by a seven-game unbeaten start in the league. Naturally he hoped for more of the same this time around. “I look at these games and the one thing that comes through is our ability to create chances – I can see that improvement so I’m not particularly bothered about today,” he added.
Goalscorer Walker echoed his manager’s sentiments about the Hearts fans displeasure – “We’re a big club and the fans are entitled to their opinion” – but also pointed to the fact that the club went all the way to the semi-finals of this competition last season after their early stutter.
Saturday, however, belonged to East Fife. To have followed up their startling 2-0 victory over Dundee United four days earlier with a draw and shootout bonus point against Premiership opposition to finish runners up in Group A was some going by Young’s side.
“I think a lot of people had written us off at the start of the group games, but we know how good we are and that we can give anyone a game,” he insisted.
“It’s a great day for our fans and everyone here’s buzzing.”