Andy Harrow looks back on Hearts’ draw with Raith Rovers in the Betfred Cup.
Hearts lack cohesion but it’s early days
The group stages of the Betfred Cup are often used by clubs to ease themselves into competitive action in time for the resumption of league duties. Based on their draw with League One side Raith Rovers, Hearts’ final two games in this competition will be vital if they’re going to be ready for their opening Premiership tie against Hamilton.
Hearts were desperately poor for large parts of Saturday afternoon’s game at New Bayview. While the visitors dominated possession, it was anaemic stuff. Misplaced passes betrayed the lack of understanding between the new signings in the visitors side, while movement was ponderous and uninspired. Raith, who’d lost 2-0 to Cowdenbeath last weekend, rarely looked like conceding until Michael Smith’s terrific strike with 15 minutes left.
Craig Levein’s side were often criticised last season for a lack of pace and imagination going forwards; too often painfully slow attacks played out in front of well-organised defences. The Betfred Cup has, so far, shown little evidence that much has changed. It’ll need to - and quickly.
Mulraney didn’t do much to dissuade the doubters
Jake Mulraney was a somewhat surprising signing by Craig Levein in pre-season. He impressed in fits and starts the last time he appeared in the Premiership, at Inverness, but he went down with the Highland club at the end of the 2016/17 season and didn’t improve dramatically in the league below.
In a Hearts team which, last campaign, relied entirely on the now-departed David Milinkovic for pace, Levein required a new outlet on the flanks. With his ability to break in behind defences, Mulraney fitted the brief. It’s what happens after he’s galloped past his full-back which led some supporters to question his signing however. His final ball against the Fifers was, at best inconsistent. Up against a callow right back in Jamie Watson, he was given ample opportunity to swing in dangerous crosses, but too often they were wayward.
He was also occasionally found wanting defensively. Deployed as a wing-back, he was able to spend most of his time attacking as Hearts set camp inside Raith’s half, but on the few occasions the home team broke he failed to track the runner. It nearly proved costly, with Watson missing a glorious opportunity in the first half while in acres of space.
Smith’s tactics worked to perfection
Barry Smith couldn’t have asked for a worse start to the season than last weekend’s tame defeat to Cowdenbeath, the side who finished bottom of the entire SPFL last campaign.
With a number of first team players out, Smith was forced to field a number of youngsters with little competitive experience against the Blue Brazil and with injuries continuing to hamper him, the same eleven started against Hearts. It’s to both Smith and the players credit then that they looked a much improved outfit, proving a match for their more garlanded opponents.
In attack, Chris Duggan and Kevin Nesbit caused the Hearts defenders problems, Ross Matthews and Grant Gillespie competed manfully in midfield, while the defence kept their shape impressively for much of the game and threw bodies on the line when required near the end.
With a thinner squad than last season, Smith will need to utilise the younger members of the squad for the campaign ahead. They’ve proven they can stand up to the challenge.
Lafferty and Naismith didn’t show much evidence of an improved relationship
If Hearts fans were hoping for signs that Kyle Lafferty and Steven Naismith could form an effective partnership this season, they would have left New Bayview mildly concerned.
When Naismith joined Hearts in January this year, hopes were stoked amongst the Tynecastle faithful that two of the clubs’ most talented players would develop a winning formula in attack. That Levein decided to push Naismith deeper for much of his first spell meant the relationship barely progressed passed friendly introductions.
With new signing Steven MacLean unable to play on plastic pitches - and with the Hearts boss keen to trail a new-look midfield - it meant Lafferty and Naismith were presented with an opportunity to show what everyone had been missing. Initially, the signs were promising with long balls from defence allowing for a traditional big-man-little-man approach. However, as the game progressed, and as Hearts sought to play from the deck, the relationship floundered. Neither appeared to have an understanding of what the other should be doing, leaving both looking lost, frustrated and ineffectual.
When Lafferty later limped off, it marked the end of an inauspicious hour.
Kevin Nesbit might offer Raith the guile they need
Last season, Barry Smith acquired a set of strikers that looked set to decimate League One. Alongside talented youngster Lewis Vaughan, he signed prime penalty box profiteers in Liam Buchanan and Greig Spence. Promotion looked a safe bet, as did the top goalscorer award for one of the three.
12 months later and Raith still reside in League One, their promising attack put firmly in the shade by Ayr United’s prolific front men. As any supporter of the Kirkclady club will attest, it wasn’t entirely the fault of the strikers; the real issue was in the space behind them.
After a promising performance against Hearts, where he scored and otherwise looked lively, Kevin Nesbit might be the man who can re-ignite the Raith Rovers attack. So often last season, the Stark’s Park side looked shorn of creativity in midfield. Once Ross Callachan left for Hearts, the central area became painfully one-dimensional, with no one capable of breaking lines or linking play. While Nesbit will likely feature from a wide position, he showed a willingness to move centrally when required to support Duggan, as well as an intent to run at defenders. If he can make good on his promising beginning, Raith’s strikers could be back in business.
It might be too late for Hearts to rescue their Betfred Cup campaign
Depending on the outcome of Monday’s hearing into Heart’s fielding of an ineligible player in their midweek tie against Cove Rangers, Hearts inability to secure three points against Raith may have cost them a place in the knock-out stages of the Betfred Cup.
There’s a strong possibility the victory Hearts earned in Aberdeenshire may be rescinded, leaving them on only two points from two games. With Inverness having won both of their fixtures already - and with Raith and Hearts to play - they may be in an almost uncatchable position by Monday evening.
After being knocked out at the same stage last season - an outcome which ended Ian Cathro’s tenure - it will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those around Tynecastle once more.