Those Hearts fans wishing to find an omen in what was a second Scottish Cup win over Auchinleck Talbot in recent years did not find it here. Because this was nothing like the nervy, unimpressive victory they posted en route to winning the trophy with a 5-1 win over Hibs in 2012.
A late goal from Gordon Smith decided the tie seven years ago. In contrast to Auchinleck, who featured two players who featured in that clash and whose manager Tommy Sloan was also in charge then, there were no survivors from the victors playing yesterday though Ian Black and Andy Webster were interviewed on the pitch at half-time. Introduced as a pair of winners from 2012 – “and we all remember what happened then” – Black was jeered by the impressive away following from Ayrshire. “Even junior fans don’t like you,” remarked an impressed Scott Wilson, the Tynecastle Tannoy man.
Sadly for these supporters, it was all the fun they were having at this stage, although why let the fact you’re trailing 3-0 to a top-flight side detract from the fact you’ve recently beaten a team – local rivals no less - riding high in the Championship. Whatever happened at Tynecastle yesterday, the Bot had already enjoyed a day that will echo in history when beating Ayr United 1-0 in the previous round.
This trip to Gorgie was a bonus, one another big following from Ayrshire was eager to be part of. They willed on their heroes in black and gold but it proved a challenge too far. Auchinleck could at least draw some consolation from knowing they proved more resilient than Chelsea were at Manchester City yesterday – and St Johnstone were at Celtic. The Bot were also just a few minutes away from drawing the second period.
Hearts finished with ten men after Michael Smith pulled up with around 15 minutes left. The hosts had already made three substitutions so it gave Auchinleck renewed hope they might at last gain the goal their efforts deserved. They nearly did. An offside flag denied Stephen Wilson late on and at the end where over 1800 away fans were sitting. This was shortly after Aidan Keena scored Hearts’ fourth with his first strike for the club.
Goals from Christophe Berra, Demetri Mitchell and Steven MacLean had given Hearts an unassailable half-time lead.
Unlike the last they time played here, when then Hearts manager Paulo Sergio made a raft of changes, Auchinleck had to cope with an in-form side at nearly full strength. Craig Levein was taking no chances. It meant key men such as Steven Naismith started. And we all know what happens when Naismith plays. Hearts do no lose. In fact, they nearly always win.
The match programme had done the math, as they say. Prior to kick-off yesterday, Hearts had an 81.8 per cent win record with the Scotland player in the team. This dropped to 18.1 per cent without him. The sight of the albino assassin warming up caused Auchinleck’s spirits to droop from the start. Given the gulf between the teams, the obvious handicap that could have been imposed to even up the contest was denying Hearts his services.
This is not Scottish Cup policy, however. Teams, even over-achieving ones from the West of Scotland Super League Premier Division, have to simply get on with it against their well-resourced hosts.
Auchinleck did at least blunt Naismith’s effectiveness. Surprisingly, he did not feature on the scoresheet. Berra had already put the ball in the net before claiming a goal that stood after ten minutes. It was the centre-half’s first of the season and stemmed from a free-kick routine that saw Olly Lee and Mitchell pretend to have a misunderstanding over who would take it - a t least it’s presumed they were pretending.
Hearts are getting a name for innovative set-pieces so we must give them the benefit of the doubt. Berra didn’t think twice – he rose unchallenged to meet Lee’s cross and head Hearts into the lead.
Mitchell put Hearts two ahead on the half hour mark with a deflected effort from the edge of the box after sustained pressure around the penalty area. When MacLean turned in Mitchell’s cross from a short corner after 38 minutes it was possible to fear for the opposition, who had the added headache of getting to grips with Uche Ikpeazu.
The brawny striker returned for his first start since October to impose his impressive physical bearing on the proceedings. Even hardy veterans of the Ayrshire junior football scene were bouncing off him.
Keena, who replaced Naismith with 15 minutes left, scored the goal of the afternoon with four minutes left after some intricate footwork in the box.