With a possible points deduction hanging over their heads, another slip-up in the Betfred Cup was the last thing Hearts needed in their bid to make it out of the group stages and avoid another embarrassing exit from the competition.
Unfortunately for Craig Levein and his side, that’s exactly what happened as a dismal performance, combined with a controversial refereeing decision, saw them held to an unlikely draw against League One opponents.
The bonus point earned for winning the penalty shoot-out will help their efforts, but if the SPFL decide to rescind the victory at Cove Rangers in midweek for fielding an ineligible player then it would mean the Tynecastle side are only capable of reaching eight points, a total that wasn’t good enough to qualify as one of the best placed runners-up in last year’s tournament.
As for the “home side” at East Fife’s New Bayview ground – played there due to an artificial surface being laid at Stark’s Park – the point does little for their hopes of progressing to the next round, though it should at least lift spirits following last week’s embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Cowdenbeath, especially with key players like Lewis Vaughan and Liam Buchanan missing.
Hearts seemed in control in the early part of the game but they soon became sluggish in their approach, failing to play with the required urgency in attack.
Olly Lee and Kyle Lafferty each had efforts deflected wide, but that was about it from the visitors. Raith grew into the game and should have been ahead on 37 minutes as Euan Valentine crossed for right-back Jamie Watson streaking in at the back post. Somehow the 19-year-old missed the target from close range.
Lafferty had the chance to give his side the lead right before the break but fluffed his finish from a Jake Mulraney cutback. The striker picked up an injury in the process and had to be subbed off minutes into the second half.
By that point the underdogs were in front. Grant Gillespie prodded a through ball from the edge of the area, and when Peter Haring and John Souttar collided with each other, it allowed Kevin Nisbet to finish from close range.
In response Levein changed the system to a 4-4-2 and introduced three youngsters – Callumn Morrison, Aidan Keena and Anthony McDonald – in a bid to reverse his team’s fortunes, but while the intensity improved, it seemed like the men in maroon could play all day and not score.
It took something special for them to haul themselves level. Given room to charge forward, the unlikely figure of Michael Smith cut in on his weaker left foot and hit an unbelievable strike which nestled in the top corner of the net. It was his first competitive goal since November 2016.
That bolt from the blue finally sparked Hearts into life and they pushed for a winner. Smith had a shot deflected before Haring headed over from six yards. They thought they had secured the victory they desperately needed when Christophe Berra headed home Bobby Burns’ corner, but referee Don Robertson blew for a foul. Replays showed goalkeeper Robbie Thomson had been knocked down by his own defender.
“I’m angry with the decision,” said Levein, “but I was also angry with our performance for parts of the first half and the start of the second. It irritates me I had to bring three young kids on to improve our performance, which should never happen and that’s what disappoints me.”
After Kyle Benedictus and Olly Lee had their penalties saved, Ross Matthews almost sent his effort into the Firth of Forth, allowing John Souttar to add a bonus point for Hearts.
Though welcomed, it may ultimately be in vain if tomorrow’s hearing goes against them.