Omitted from the team to work on fitness and yet to start a competitive match this season, Walker produced the game’s only goal at a roasting-hot Tynecastle Park 15 minutes from full-time.
In truth, he might have scored four goals in an outstanding 25-minute substitute appearance which certainly enhanced his claim for a starting berth. Inverness could have lost this tie by several goals despite a spirited and well-organised performance.
A series of vital saves by goalkeeper Mark Ridgers kept his former side at bay and a red card for midfielder Michael Gardyne on 87 minutes soured an otherwise impressive effort.
The victory wasn’t sufficient to earn the hosts a seeding berth for the tournament’s knockout rounds, although goalkeeper Craig Gordon did continue a record-breaking shutout sequence with his 11th competitive clean sheet in a row.
Another goal would have seen the Edinburgh club enter the seeded pot. As it was, they had to make do with a tie against Celtic in Glasgow on the weekend of August 14/15.
Although they had already qualified for the knockout stage of the competition, Hearts entered this game knowing victory by two goals would secure the added bonus of a seeding in the draw. The emphasis was therefore very much on attack, illustrated by the strong starting line-up named by manager Robbie Neilson.
There was also a need to maintain momentum ahead of next weekend’s opening Premiership fixture with Celtic. Hearts had won three out of three Group A matches and wanted four in a row, although Inverness were theoretically the most difficult opponent as the only Championship club in the section.
Neilson rested John Souttar as a precaution due to a slight knock, otherwise he had no major injury concerns. Inverness were playing only for pride in Edinburgh as manager Billy Dodds readied them for another campaign in the second tier of Scottish football.
Josh Ginnelly received an early yellow card for simulation as he ran past the visiting defender Wallace Duffy and fell. Liam Boyce then drove a vicious shot against Ridgers’ palms before Finlay Pollock also tested the Highlanders’ No.1.
At the opposite end, Craig Gordon fisted away Reece McAlear’s free-kick as the 2,989 supporters inside Tynecastle sensed their team had not yet found proper rhythm. The weather may have been a factor. Summer sun, clear skies and very little breeze made for sweltering conditions in Gorgie. That affected the game’s tempo quite understandably.
Referee Nick Walsh halted play for a water break midway through the first half. For many in the main stand, it was tempting to run down to the technical area and steal a couple of gulps. The game resumed for Armand Gnanduillet, fit again after a tight thigh, to sprint forward and force Ridgers into a save low to his left.
The clearest Inverness chance of the first half fell to midfielder Tom Walsh on 36 minutes. Shane Sutherland’s cross from the left was taken down by the midfielder, whose half-volley at goal was bravely deflected over by Alex Cochrane. The on-loan Brighton defender was then literally dragged to his feet and congratulated by a relieved Gordon.
Hearts would have retreated at the interval with a one-goal advantage but for an outstanding save from Ridgers seconds from the whistle. Teenager Finlay Pollock dispatched a first-time effort from Ginnelly’s low cross and the goalkeeper sprung to his right to push the ball away.
There was much to admire about the Highlanders’ organisation and diligence throughout the opening period. Dodds and his assistant Barry Wilson would have been more than satisfied at a goalless scoreline midway through the match.
Their debt to Ridgers continued into the second half and there was also a fair amount of gratitude due to his goalframe. Gary Mackay-Steven’s first-time strike from Ginnelly’s clipped delivery was beaten away for a corner by the keeper. The set-piece was delivered low by Cochrane and met by Gnanduillet’s left foot, only for the ball to thump off Ridgers’ right post. The rebound was met by Pollock, whose instinctive shot struck the same upright.
The more Hearts forced the issue and increased the pressure, the more Inverness dug in in an attempt to hold on as the second water break arrived. Their resistance finally boke on 75 minutes after Walker’s introduction.
The substitute took Boyce’s through pass on the run and dispatched a brilliant low finish beyond Ridgers from the edge of the penalty area. After a quick glance at the technical area – perhaps to make sure his statement of intent was received loud and clear – he set off to celebrate.
He wasn’t finished, either. Moments later another effort from similar distance was parried by Ridgers. Then Walker found himself on the end of a flowing passing move for a first-time drive blocked by Ridgers’ legs. The same player tried again from close range after good work by Euan Henderson. Again, Ridgers made a miraculous stop.
Gardyne had clearly had enough of Walker by then. He was dismissed on 87 minutes for a poor challenge on the Hearts No.7. The substitute’s impact swayed the game in his side’s favour and he finished the game looking decidedly satisfied.
Hearts (4-3-3): Gordon; M Smith, Halkett, Kingsley, Cochrane; Pollock (Walker 65), Halliday (Haring 65); Ginnelly, Gnanduillet (Henderson 82), Mackay-Steven.
Inverness CT (4-4-2): Ridgers; Duffy, Broadfoot, Devine (Fyffe 75), Deas (Harper 75); Walsh (McDonald 80), McAlear, Macgregor, Gardyne; Sutherland (Jamieson 80), Duku (Allardice 70).