HEARTS continued their pre-season preparations with a 2-0 win over Raith Rovers in a friendly at Stark’s Park this evening.
Goals from Gary Oliver and Jamie Walker, coupled with a clean sheet will have pleased head coach Robbie Neilson. Perhaps more importantly, his entire match squad were given a decent run out and came through unscathed in front of 1,983 spectators.
Alim Ozturk was still feeling the effects of the thigh injury that forced him off after just 26 minutes of Hearts’ 4-2 win over Shelbourne at the weekend. He made way for Liam Smith, back from a season-long loan at East Fife, while 17-year-old Sean McKirdy lined up for this third top team start alongside Kenny Anderson in midfield. Hearts’ Under-17s coach Liam Fox – still registered as a player – was given a spot on the bench at his old stomping ground, having left Raith in the summer to take up the post at Riccarton.
Spanish striker Juanma went close within five minutes for the vistors. A clever nutmeg from Soufian El Hassnaoui on Rory McKeown got the Dutch-Moroccan in behind the Raith defence before picking out his strike partner, but the recent arrival from Kalloni failed to make proper contact. The Premiership team dominated possession in the opening stages. The diminutive McKirdy was certainly combative, and provided an example of his confidence when he sent a clever left-footed chip not too far wide of Kevin Cuthbert’s top corner from the edge of the area. Oliver then went even closer, his attempt a mirror image of McKirdy’s that cracked off the outside of Cuthbert’s left-hand post.
Rovers’ first real attempt at troubling Neil Alexander came ten minutes before the interval. Lewis Vaughan’s in-swinging delivery flashed across the six yard area and was missed by the Hearts defenders but Grant Anderson failed to connect at the back post. Until that point, the Hearts keeper had been occupying himself by playing as an auxiliary sweeper behind Jordan McGhee and Blazej Augustyn, who kept the captain’s armband in Ozturk’s absence.
Neilson discontinued the policy adopted in Hearts’ previous two friendlies of wholesale half-time changes as an unchanged line-up emerged after the interval. That same XI almost produced the opener within a minute of the restart after Oliver fed the overlapping Callum Paterson on the right, and the Scotland Under-21 international’s low delivery was inadvertently turned on to his own crossbar by Kyle Benedictus.
The visitors were having some joy probing down the right, and Oliver again was the creator as he fed El Hassnaoui from the angle of the box. His powerful near-post drive was smothered by Cuthbert. Sam Nicholson was next to try his luck as Neilson’s side began to find pockets of space in their opponents’ half, but his low trundler lacked power and accuracy.
The breakthrough, unsurprisingly, came for Hearts on 55 minutes. Oliver, who had drifted infield from his wide right berth, picked up possession 20 yards and hit a speculative effort. Benedictus threw himself in front of the shot but the ball struck him and looped over Cuthbert for Oliver’s second goal in three pre-season games.
Neilson changed his entire team bar Alexander and Liam Smith after an hour, handing first team debuts to defender Leon Jones and striker Russell McLean. Fox was also given a run out, 11 years after first leaving Hearts.
The game looked to be petering out until a moment of quality from Jamie Walker lit up the finale. The Hearts man didn’t even need to look up as stepped on to McLean’s knockdown and curled a wonderful first time effort over the helpless Cuthbert.
Raith: Cuthbert, Thomson, McKeown, Toshney, Benedictus, Callachan, Craigen, McCord, Wighton, Vaughan, Anderson. Subs: McGurn, Laidlaw, Petrie, Ford, Bates, Trialist, Megginson, Robertson, Matthews.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, Augustyn, McGhee, L Smith, Oliver, McKirdy, Anderson, Nicholson, El Hassnaoui, Juanma. Subs: Fox, Jones, Howlett-Mundle, Walker, Pallardo, King, Reilly, Sow, Russell.
Referee: C Allan. Attendance: 1,983