HEARTS rediscovered a resilience that seemed to have deserted them of late to stage a remarkable League Cup third-round comeback at Rugby Park last night. A quarter-final place, and a first win in four matches seemed improbable, if not downright impossible, when they found themselves 2-1 down to a Josh Magennis double with one minute of normal time left.
From that point Hearts didn’t just spare themselves a 90-minute exit with a late rally but actually won a tie that it had seemed they were always going to fail to do enough in - despite territorial advantage throughout a second period when manager Robbie Neilson gambled by pushing numbers forward.
A further 30 minutes of a pulsating cup tie seemed to be set up when Juanma threw himself forward to head in to make it 2-2 as the clocked ticked towards the final seconds. But, refusing to merely settle for giving themselves a second life on a night when Magennis seemed to have snuffed out their hopes in the competition when he drove in a low effort from the edge of the box to make it 2-1 with 74 minutes gone, Hearts kept going.
Somehow, Sam Nicholson found himself in perfect position to latch on to a ball flashed across the box that had escaped Juanma, and he planted into the far corner from eight yards.
It was an outrageous twist that the tie had never seemed to have in it – even when Alim Ozturk snuck a low shot from the edge of the area through a posse of players to provide Hearts with a 74th minutes equaliser that they had pressed for, but appeared to lack the guile to produce against a stout Kilmarnock defence.
Neilson will now hope that the resurrection of his team in Ayrshire can have a rejuvenating effect on the club’s league season, which had begun to drift in recent weeks.
A couple of weeks ago many considered Gary Locke – and not the now no-longer Motherwell manager Ian Baraclough – would be the first Premiership manager sacked this season. The same sages also had Robbie Neilson leading a title charge at Hearts.
The way Kilmarnock approached last night’s tie against the Tynecastle men, though, demonstrated how much has changed since Locke’s men were suffering four-goal thumpings and Neilson’s side were racking up the wins on their return to the top flight.
The Ayrshire club were looking at the cup tie to provide them with a third-straight win and Hearts were hoping it would stop them suffering a fourth straight defeat.
The early exchanges appeared entirely in keeping with that form, although problems for Kilmarnock were expected to to ensue from a weekend injury to Jamie MacDonald that left Locke scrambling around for a keeper.
He secured an emergency loan deal for St Mirren’s Mark Ridgers, although, curiously, MacDonald was listed on the home side’s bench.
Ridgers looked a little shaky in the initial exchanges but the fault lines in the Gorgie side are also suddenly beginning to show – nowhere more so than in central defence, where Alim Ozturk and Blazej Augustyn seem unlikely to blank any opposition.
Inside 13 minutes, Hearts’ fifth game without a clean sheet, was sealed. The conviction and strength Josh Magennis exuded to claim his third goal of the season was sadly lacking in the efforts to prevent the Northern Irishman pouncing. Clever play from Greg Kiltie allowed the attacker to whip in a cross that Magennis leapt to head beyond Neil Alexander.
Hearts’ response became bogged down in the bustle of a cup tie contested with a general narkiness. Two many clattering challenges, and intemperate exchanges prevented the visitors achieving any drive of fluency. Yet, when it mattered most and all seemed lost, they found the means to salvation in a manner that warrants admiration.
Kilmarnock: Ridgers; O’Hara, Ashcroft, Balatoni, Findlay (Smith 26), Kiltie (Boyd 84), Hamill, Slater, Obadeyi (Robinson 72); Higginbotham, Magennis. Subs not used: MacDonald, Smith, Splaine, McLean, Wilsonr.
Hearts: Alexander; Paterson, Ozturk, Augustyn, Rossi; Gomis, Buaben; King (Walker 52), Swanson (Juanma 58), Nicholson; Sow. Subs not used: Hamilton, Miguel Pallardo, Djoum, Juanma, Reilly, McGhee