Hearts 2-1 Stenhousemuir: Late Craig Halkett double spares Jambos' blushes

There was a collective sigh of relief inside Tynecastle on Wednesday night. Having huffed and puffed with no reward, they had Craig Halkett to thank for two late goals and all three points in the ongoing quest for League Cup progress.

Craig Halkett wheels away after scoring for Hearts
Craig Halkett wheels away after scoring for Hearts

For so much of this match, it was one way traffic and as Hearts pummelled their guests there was a sense that should they breach the Stenhousemuir defence, a deluge could follow, such was the dominance and the swell of goal-scoring opportunities being created by the home side.

People pondered when it would come. Then, as the League Two side defied them time and time again, the question switched to if. What few in the stadium had considered was that somehow the team who had proved so defensively resolute would somehow conjure up a way to break out of their own half and convert one of the only chances they managed to muster all night.

But fortune favours the brave and the dogged and Stenhousemuir could lay claim to both labels as their players literally put their bodies on the line to foil Hearts and provoke frustration and consternation within Tynecastle.

For all but the last eight minutes or so they weathered the onslaught, which started in the first few minutes and continued unabated throughout the remainder of the game.

The only momentary respite came in the 77th when the visitors launched a counter attack, which ended with Mark McGuigan slamming home an angled effort to beat Bobby Zlamal and stun the home crowd.

It was greeted by a stunned silence, quickly followed by louding booing. It served as a boot up the bum for the Hearts players who couldn’t believe they were behind and within five minutes summer signing Craig Halkett, given a starting berth in place of club captain Christophe Berra, have levelled the scores and then for minutes later he weighed in with the winner to spare the Gorgie side’s blushes.

It still seems bizarre to think that these games could lead to the lifting of one of Scottish football’s main trophies.

So early in the season, when clubs have hardly had time to reintroduce their players to the ball afters some gruelling fitness work, the sparsely-filled stadium and rotation of team personnel as managers use the games to build match fitness and work on team understandings, is a million miles away from the glamour of major silverware.

But from humble origins…

And in true cup tradition, when the medals are handed out at the end of the competition, no-one will care about how they arrived there, simply that the teams somehow overcame the determined underdogs who yapped at their heels in these competitive friendlies. If Hearts do manage to get through these group stages and progress deep into the tournament, it’s unlikely they will forget this test, though.

A frustrating night of total domination, it seemed that fate had decided that none of their numerous efforts were to find their way past the League Two side.

There was some slick passing in the early stages, pinning the lower league team back almost immediately. Balls over the top, overlapping runs down the flanks and some neat interplay through the middle, the home side had plenty of attacking options but while creating scoring opportunities was not a problem, finding a way to beat the away keeper Graeme Smith and his defence was more tricky and required more patience than most of the home support could muster.

From goalline clearances, body blocks, last ditch tackles and double saves Stenny were a team on a mission and while Hearts were profligate, credit must go to the Larbert side.

Michael Smith was one of the first to come up against the defensive brick wall but he wasn’t the last. Conor Washington, Jamie Walker, Steven MacLean were also foiled as Stenny stood firm.

The best example of their defiance came in the second half when Smith pulled off a cracking close range double save from Smith and then Ollie Bozanicand when he was done Scott McLaughlin wads on the line to halt Washington’s effort.

But finally there was a breakthrough, at one end and then, finally at the other. It was a hard one for Stenhousemuir to stomach but for Hearts, who move top of their group, it had been just a matter of time.

HEARTS: Zlamal, Smith, Souttar, Halkett, Hickey, McDonald (Mulraney 57), Clare, Bozanic, Walker, MacLean (Ikpeazu 57), Washington (Keena 59). Subs not used: Doyle, White, Dikamona, Irving.

STENHOUSEMUIR: Smith, Mclaughlin, A Munro, Marsh, McIlduff, Scullion, M Munro (Halleran 62), McKernon, Cook, Hopkirk, McGuigan. Subs not used: Marley, Watters, Luke, Anderson, Daramola