Only one goal down to their SPL opponents – and a very late one at that – Auchinleck Talbot had put in so much effort, and gained so much confidence in the process, that they really believed a draw was possible.
They nearly got it as well. In a frenetic final flurry, a chipped pass into the Hearts penalty area was slotted past the goalkeeper by Gordon Pope, only for him to be ruled offside. Had the tight decision gone in Pope’s favour, few would have begrudged his team the right to take their place in tomorrow’s fifth-round draw. Hearts won this match thanks to Gordon Smith’s 84th-minute strike, but the glory was all Auchinleck’s.
Their goalkeeper, Andy Leishman, was the hero with a string of stunning saves, one of them from a penalty, but all of his team-mates contributed to a hugely competitive performance by the Ayrshire side. “It’s not surprising with this group of players,” said Tommy Sloan, their manager. “We have had a lot of success at our own level in the last few years. They can raise their game to a very good standard.”
Paulo Sergio, who fielded a young, experimental side, said that it might have been very different had Hearts scored an early goal, but they didn’t. Of course they dominated possession and created almost all of the chances, but this, remember, wasn’t even a league team they were up against. Their goal was fortunate, and Pope later claimed that his ‘equaliser’ should have stood.
Nearly 2,000 Ayrshire fans, decked out in their distinctive gold and black, had turned up with a mixture of fear and excitement, but they needn’t have been so apprehensive.
The visitors’ staying power frustrated Hearts. That was partly down to the numbers in which they got behind the ball, partly down to their last-ditch defending when the pressure grew, but more than anything, it was thanks to Leishman. His penalty save in the 20th minute was quite brilliant. When Arvydas Novikovas dinked a ball over Pope, the full-back pulled him down before he could shoot, and young Fraser Mullen, making his Hearts debut, was given the responsibility. There was nothing wrong with the spot-kick, delivered low and firm to the bottom left-hand corner, but Leishman got his huge frame down quickly enough to push the ball away.
Leishman’s second big save, 15 minutes later, was just as good. In a similar manoeuvre to that tried by Novikovas, Rudi Skacel cut inside the full-back, but this time he was allowed to get his shot away. It wasn’t the cleanest of hits, but it sprung up at an unusual angle, forcing Leishman to produce an instinctive save with his left hand.
He was not the only one denying Hearts. Auchinleck were well marshalled at the back, they outnumbered their opponents in key areas, and they rode their luck. When Novikovas wriggled to the byeline and pulled the ball back, Ricky Robb’s intervention was masterly. Then, when Andy Webster had a free header at the back post, the defender could only direct it over the bar.
Auchinleck even managed a first-half chance of their own. When a dangerous ball through the Hearts penalty area landed at the feet of Steven White, a mis-hit shot back across goal fell to Keir Milliken. Without the necessary composure, the lone striker could only bundle a tame shot at the goalkeeper.
It was not the hungry performance that Sergio had expected from his new-look side. As well as picking Mullen and Smith, he had given rare starts to Darren Barr and Jamie MacDonald. For the second half, he introduced Jordan Morton and David Templeton, but there was no improvement.
After the interval, Hearts failed for long spells to even test Leishman. And their mood was enhanced none by the clash of heads that led to Barr being stretchered off midway through the second half. So long was he attended to in the Auchinleck penalty area – hence the eight minutes added on – that there were fears for his condition, but Sergio later said that the injury, which required only a few stitches, was nothing serious. Black filled in at centre-half for the rest of the match.
Eventually, the chances came Hearts’ way, but there were only six minutes left when Morton sent a high ball into the box, Leishman collided with one of his team’s substitutes, Bryan Slavin, and the ball broke to Smith. From 12 yards, he found the empty net. It was a sore one for Leishman, in every sense.