Hearts manager Craig Levein has urged onlookers not to read anything into Kyle Lafferty’s decision to throw his top into the throng of Gorgie fans at the final whistle.
The striker started this one on the bench but with the large away support singing his name, he was thrown into the mix with 20 minutes remaining as the Premiership side struggled to get the better of their Championship hosts.
Although it was Olly Lee who finally got the breakthrough minutes later, the Northern Ireland striker’s presence proved to be a positive as he provided the team with more of a spearhead and he became the talking point as he gave up his strip and his shin guards at the end.
“Look, Kyle costs us a fortune. He does that every single week,” said Levein as he mulled over a difficult but ultimately successful afternoon. “So don’t read anything into that. Do I think that’s his last game? No.”
That may not be what the player or Rangers want to hear. But that won’t trouble Hearts, who expelled a huge sigh of relief when the final whistle sounded and their progress into the last eight of the Betfred League Cup was assured.
It was something that had looked far from certain, with goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal been called into action more often than his counterpart at the other bend of the pitch.
“Maybe I’m a bit harder to please, but I’d have expected him to save two of those,” admitted the Hearts manager, who described it as a tough match but stressed that he had never expected it to be easy. “The last one was an outstanding save though.”
Ryan Williamson set up the first major challenge, sending in a marvellous ball in the 69th minute. Getting on the end of it, Faissal El Bakhtaoui’s finish forced Zlamal to make a diving save to prevent it dipping under the bar.
Danny Devine was next to bring out the best in the visiting keeper as the Pars pushed forward in hunt of the goal their efforts probably merited as they sought to cancel out Lee’s strike and take the contest into extra time.
With the game already into stoppage time, Aidan Connolly almost did just that but Zlamal made a save from point-blank range to render himself the hero of the day and see Hearts into this Sunday’s quarter-final draw.
It was a tough one for Dunfermline to swallow. While Hearts had been dogged and managed to grind out the result, they were not at their best and that was, in part, due to the way Dunfermline took the match to them.
Tactically, they identified Steven Naismith as the creative dangerman and tasked James Craigen with snuffing out his threat. It worked well with the on-loan star subdued.
There were few chances created by Hearts, who struggled to find a cutting edge. But, although unbeaten in their first seven competitive outings this term, they managed this win without ever looking at the best.
“We gave everything against a strong Hearts team and pushed them all the way,”said Dunfermline boss Allan Johnston, “and on another day we could quite easily have won, with the chances we created. We frustrated Hearts for long periods and I don’t think our keeper had many saves.”
The only real dig on target came in the 70th minute but it resulted in the only goal of the encounter, as Lee skelped a low right-foot drive through the legs of a Dunfermline defender, leaving Lee Robinson unsighted until it was too late to react.
It was the confidence boost needed by the away team, who had started the game with Aaron Hughes in the heart of defence in place of injured captain Christophe Berra, but had to switch Peter Haring back to that role when the veteran centre-back complained of a tight calf at half-time. It was also the encouragement the big travelling support needed to really get behind their men.
Suddenly there was a bit more movement and a greater willingness to battle for the ball as they fought to prevent the unbowed Dunfermline players from finding an equaliser.
The home side tried and even goalkeeper Lee Robinson joined the attacks late on, charging up field, overlapping his defence and playing through balls but they were given unnecessary encouragement by Hearts, who could have killed things off when substitute Callum Morrison countered late on. But with Robinson caught out of his area and the goal gaping, the decision-making was poor and no second goal materialised. Making for a fraught final few minutes .