With European football and Premiership matches the priority over the past few weeks, as they were permitted to bypass the group stages of the Premier Sports Cup, progression to the knockout rounds gave the capital side more to think about.
But, with less than a handful of do or die ties between the second round and the possible lifting of silverware, they weren’t the only ones with their eyes on the prize, as Kilmarnock found the cutting edge required to safeguard their interest in the competition and leave Hearts with one less thing to focus on.
The Tynecastle boss had spoken before the game of his intention to fill out his squad to help it cope with the heavy demands - this was their sixth game in a gruelling stretch of 11 matches in just 36 days. They are aggressively chasing a couple of targets they hope to tie up before the transfer window shuts but having won a watch with both Stephen Kingsley and Barrie McKay, who were both unattached signings brought in outwith the transfer window, there may be even more to come as he looks to fill gaps in his side.
There were seven injury absentees from the Gorgie line-up, while latest signing Orestis Kiomourtzoglou is still waiting on his visa to come through, leaving the home side only able to list seven subs. And, while they hope to have Craig Halkett and Kingsley back for the weekend, this match underlined what Neilson has been saying for a while, they need greater strength in depth.
The lack of defensive options have been obvious, but the long-term knee ligament injury to Liam Boyce was a blow to the attack. But there were plenty of other creative options on the field against Kilmarnock. They just couldn’t find the necessary chink in the Ayrshire team’s armour.
Huffing and puffing, they pressed for an opening but every time they came up against an extremely well-drilled and defiant defence, willing to put their bodies on the line and ready and able to read Hearts’ build-up play and win everything in the air.
That performance denied the home side much in the way of clear-cut chances and after Derek McInnes’ men grabbed the opening goal they were able to shut up shop. The fact the goalkeeper was booked for time-wasting before half-time was an indication of how they were willing to see out the contest by any means necessary. And they did that without too much cause for panic, defending soundly as Hearts’ pushed forward with a fairly blunted attack.
The Ayrshire side are unbeaten in their last six trips to Tynecastle, although they have not met over the past two seasons as they took turns to spend time exiled in the second tier.
They grabbed the only goal of the game in the 20th minute when a ball in from the right flank found Innes Cameron unopposed. Evading the makeshift Hearts’ backline he rose to send a looping header back across Craig Gordon’s goal, tucking it just inside the far post.
Hearts tried to comeback but couldn’t find a way to convert industry into invention.