Behind to a Kevin Nesbit goal, with the possibility of a points deduction for fielding an ineligible player at Cove Rangers hanging over their heads, Levein decided against using some of the more experienced options on his bench and instead brought two 19-year-olds, Aidan Keena and Callumn Morrison, and 17-year-old Anthony McDonald. Considering the sluggishness of the veteran players already on the park, his trust in youth shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.
The trio finished the game as the away side’s strikeforce, with Steven Naismith sitting deeper as the No 10, as Hearts finally managed to put the kind of pressure on Raith that many would have expected from the first whistle. And while they didn’t manage to do enough to earn the three points – thanks in part to the controversial decision from referee Don Robertson, who disallowed a Christophe Berra injury-time header – they did receive praise from their manager and team-mates for lifting the performance of the side, which helped them escape with a draw and additional bonus point for winning the penalty shoot-out.
“The young lads have been fantastic,” said right-back Michael Smith. “Little Callumn Morrison was fantastic at Cove. I would’ve had no argument if he’d started against Raith. I said that to him and he was a bit disappointed not to start. But he’s a young lad learning his trade and he’ll be a great player.
“The young lads know under the gaffer they’re going to get a chance at the club. But it shouldn’t be for them to show the older lads the way.
“If you don’t perform you don’t play, it’s the same at every football club. We’ve got competition at the club, we’ve got a much bigger squad than last year. There are going to be people left out of the squad. If you haven’t performed and you’re left out then you’ve got no arguments.”
As well as the youngsters performed, Hearts may still have left with zero points if Smith hadn’t produced a terrific goal to draw them level. The right-back charged forward from defence and, with little alternatives on offer, decided to have a pop from nearly 30 yards. The ball flew through the air and crashed into the top corner of the net with Raith goalkeeper Robbie Thomson rooted to the spot.
It was one of few bright moments in what was otherwise a hugely disappointing afternoon for the Premiership side. Given the frustrations of last year, it was far from ideal as they looked to dramatically improve matters on the park this campaign.
“I just thought I’d have a go because we didn’t have many shots on target. So I just hit it,” said Smith. “The fans are entitled to make their feelings clear. They pay money to come and watch us and they should see us winning comfortably at these kinds of places.”