Hearts stuck to their task on a sodden night in North Lanarkshire when the greatest threat to the visitors’ progression to the last eight of the Betfred Cup initially seemed to come from the Heavens.
Then came the hint of a Motherwell comeback. Half-time substitute Chris Long’s goal 16 minutes into the second half gave the hosts a foothold and left them with plenty of time to build on it. But Hearts held off what further attacking menace Motherwell were able to muster to leave their 1,700 travelling fans in good voice.
What could have been a tricky night for manager Craig Levein became a triumphant one and suggested better times are ahead. Hearts are the first name in the hat for tomorrow’s quarter-final draw and Levein saluted these supporters from the pitch. Veteran Republic of Ireland international and recent capture Glenn Whelan was an unused substitute on an evening when another old timer, Steven MacLean, came on to help make a difference.
Incessant rain made underfoot conditions treacherous. They perhaps had something to do with the penalty – Hearts’ second of the night – from which Conor Washington, pictured, scored his first goal for the club to give Levein’s side a seemingly comfortable two-goal half-time lead.
Motherwell goalkeeper Mark Gillespie came rushing out of his goal to try to meet a sweeping ball into the right channel from Michael Smith, scorer of Hearts’ opener. It was a crazy notion at the best of times, never mind when the drenched turf only served to accentuate what was already an uncontrolled challenge as he wiped out Jake Mulraney. Referee Bobby Madden immediately pointed to the spot and the impressive Washington struck for the first time in six appearances.
The Northern Ireland international took over the penalty-taking duties from Sean Clare, who had compounded his eighth minute miss from the spot – the ball struck the right-hand post – by then seeking to gather the rebound before anyone else had touched it. Madden awarded an immediate foul as the Hearts supporters at the other end of the ground wondered if it was going to be one of those nights.
The award had come in fairly fortunate circumstances after Christophe Berra’s heavy touch from a corner was latched onto by Washington, whose flick struck Charles Dunne’s hand.
The away fans had travelled through in healthy numbers, perhaps encouraged by the prospect of seeing Manchester United goalkeeper Joel Pereira make his debut after signing on loan.
The Portuguese keeper looked assured enough but was bailed out by 17-year-old full-back Aaron Hickey when he fumbled Jermain Hylton’s shot after 22 minutes, and with the score still goalless. Sherwin Seedorf had sought to pounce on the chance but Hickey was in the right place at the right time to clear off the line.
The visiting fans were further alarmed to see Jamie Walker forced off after picking up a knock when trying to block a Liam Donnelly shot seven minutes before half-time. But their fears proved groundless with respect to the tie. MacLean replaced him and by the time Madden blew for half-time Hearts were two goals up.
Hearts’ Northern Ireland connection combined for the breakthrough. Washington wheeled in midfield and drove towards the box before arcing an intelligent ball out wide to Smith, who was splashing down the right flank. The full-back cut inside Richard Tait and fired an inch perfect shot from the angle on the edge of the box into the corner.
Hearts might well have been happy to take this lead with them into half-time. But they in fact doubled it due to impetuousness on the part of Gillespie, who had no reason to rush out to try to gather the ball ahead of Mulraney and certainly no business flying into him on the slick surface. Washington put his side two ahead to cap an effective 45 minutes for him personally.
Motherwell boss Stephen Robinson knew he had to change things even if his side had really only been undone by a five-minute spell of slackness at the end of the half. Long and Devante Cole replaced James Scott and Hylton.
Motherwell got back into the game out of nothing after Craig Halkett was caught out of position. This might not have mattered had Loic Damour not lost the ball in midfield. Liam Polwarth played in Long, whose angled shot went through Pereira’s legs. Game on.
Hearts responded well and endured only one real scare when Washington deflected Polwarth’s free-kick towards the bottom corner, with Pereira blocking low to his left. Substitute Aidy White might have restored Hearts’ two-goal lead after a solo run but Gillespie did well to block his eventual effort.