Halkett header enough to make it two out of two for Hearts

A Craig Halkett header was enough to make the difference for Hearts, as they ran out 1-0 winners away against Cowdenbeath in the second match of their Betfred Cup campaign. Jamie Mcintosh reports.

Hearts returned to Bayview this afternoon for the third consecutive season to play in the Betfred Cup group stages.  In 2018, Hearts beat Raith Rovers on penalties at this venue and the following season, they were beaten on penalties by the side that typically call Bayview their home – East Fife. Today, the Jambos faced their third different opposition in as many visits to the stadium, as they played Cowdenbeath.

Cowdenbeath were beaten 2-0 at this ground on Tuesday by East Fife, so they would have been hoping to try and get their first points on the board when they welcomed Hearts to Central Park. However, due to flooding, Central Park wasn’t an option for the match so an agreement was reached between the clubs that the game be played at Bayview. Visitors Hearts got their campaign up and running on Tuesday with a 1-0 victory over Inverness and they were looking to make it six points from a possible six with victory today.

The main surprise in terms of team news was a debut for 18-year-old Scott McGill in the Hearts midfield. He replaced Andy Irving, who had been called up to the Scotland Under-21s squad. The other Hearts change saw Craig Wighton replaced by Jordan Roberts in attack. For the ‘home side,’ they made two changes to the side that lost at Bayview on Tuesday, as ex-Hearts duo Robbie Buchanan and Fraser Mullen were replaced by Ross Pollock and Cian Kavanagh. 

Unfortunately, the game was a painful watch in the first half, lacking any real excitement.

Cowdenbeath had a good shout for a penalty after Craig Barr went down in the box after eight minutes – referee Alan Newlands wasn’t interested, however.

Cowdenbeath had a game plan and it was working well – they were causing Hearts problems by going long and looking to pick up the second ball. Due to the stadium being very open and exposed to the elements, the wind played a big part in the Blue Brazil’s gameplan.

Hearts were really lacklustre throughout the 90 minutes, with Robbie Neilson’s side simply not passing the ball quick enough to trouble a very organised Cowdenbeath side.

Hearts’ wide players Jordan Roberts and Josh Ginnelly (much like on Tuesday against Inverness) were the go-to guys for creativity. They were firing plenty of crosses into the box, although with Steven Naismith being the only man in the box to aim for, Cowdenbeath’s defence were fairly assured in clearing those deliveries.

Aidy White made a crucial block towards the end of Tuesday’s game and he came up with the goods again in his own box, denying Pollock at the back post from close range, as the best chance of the match so far fell to the hosts midway through the first half.

Shortly afterwards, Roberts got in behind the Cowdenbeath defence after a quick throw-in from White. He made the by-line and managed to dig out a cross for Naismith, however the veteran forward’s shot was blocked and cleared to safety. It was the first real chance Hearts had managed to create and it had taken them 30 minutes to do so.  

Craig Halkett was having to play it safe throughout the first 30 minutes, repeatedly heading Cowdenbeath’s long balls back into Craig Gordon’s gloves. While he was focussed on defence, he did try and force some chances for his side, helping a ball find its way down to Jamie Walker. Unfortunately, the chance came to nothing, with Walker’s header sailing over the bar.

A lot of Hearts’ play was started in defence and the way in which Cowdenbeath were set up challenged the Hearts centre backs to have to play world class passes in order to carve them open. 

New Hearts man Mihai Popescu produced one such pass after 36 minutes, completing a left-to-right switch ball to find Walker, who’s first touch with his chest took him beyond his opponent. Walker fired the ball across to Ginnelly who looked certain to break the deadlock, but a last-ditch block from Cowdenbeath captain Craig Barr saw the last real chance of the half come to nothing.

The highlight of a rather turgid first half was the Cowdenbeath coaching staff making their opinions known in the direction of the near side linesman regarding some of his decision – their claims certainly added some colour to an otherwise dull affair.

Hearts made one change at half time, bringing on Craig Wighton for captain Steven Naismith – Robbie Neilson revealed at full time that Naismith had complained that his back was tight and Neilson decided it wasn’t worth the risk to have him continue.

It would be fair to say everyone inside Bayview was probably expecting Hearts to come out the traps fast in the second half after receiving a stern half time team talk from Neilson.  That didn’t really come to pass, as Pollock came close to opening the scoring for the hosts off the back of a free kick early the second half. Hearts’ first chance of the second half saw Roberts involved again – he crossed for Ginnelly, who headed over from close range. 

Scott McGill’s debut came to an end on the hour mark as he was replaced by Elliott Frear. It was a solid debut from the young midfielder, who didn’t do anything wrong during his 60 minutes on the park, despite his team being poor. 

Again, it was a good switch out wide that led to a Hearts chance in the 67th minute. Olly Lee got the ball wide to Frear, who’s cross was cleared only as far as Wighton, who headed it back towards goal where it was cleared once again. The ball eventually fell to the feet of Roberts, who could only volley wide.

Hearts continued trying to play with width and put balls in the box, but Cowdenbeath were clearing the majority of these efforts with considerable ease and, subsequently, Hearts really didn’t look like scoring as the minutes continued to tick by. After 75 minutes, Walker tried his luck from distance but fired wide from the edge of the box – it was the closest Hearts had come for some time. 

Just when it looked like Cowdenbeath were going to hang on for penalties, Hearts finally found a way through after 78 minutes. Frear delivered a corner into the Cowdenbeath box, with an unmarked Halkett sending a powerful header into the back of the net. After having worked so hard to keep Hearts out, Cowdenbeath had conceded a very avoidable goal.

Peter Haring was introduced for the final 10 minutes to help Hearts see the game out. It was an effective change from Neilson, as Hearts dominated possession for the remainder of the game. 

In stoppage time, Jordan Roberts went down after what appeared to be a push in the back from Ross Clark, with Newlands eventually pointing to the penalty spot, giving Hearts the chance to double their lead late on.

Jamie Walker scored from the spot on Tuesday and opted to go to the opposite side this afternoon, but a strong hand from Cowdenbeath goalkeeper Ross Sinclair kept the scoreline at 1-0 and that’s the way it stayed for the remainder of stoppage time. 

Cowdenbeath sat in and frustrated Hearts for long periods of the game until Halkett’s header broke the deadlock. The match winner believes Hearts must get used to playing in tough games like today’s one: 

“Teams are going to be like that against us this season, the gaffer’s alluded to it already. We’re the team that everybody wants to beat, so teams are going to really make us work for the win and I thought Cowdenbeath did that today.”

Cowdenbeath manager Gary Bollan was impressed with his side’s performance and thought they had more of a penalty shout in the first half than the one awarded to Hearts in the second half:

“Hearts are massive favourites to win the Championship and we knew we were going into a tough game today, I thought our penalty was more of a shout than what Hearts got one for in the second half, maybe a bit harshly treated there but sometimes against the big teams you don’t get those decisions and today I didn’t think we got them.” 

Robbie Neilson wasn’t all too impressed with the performance, but was relieved that his side were able to dig deep and find a way to win, despite being far from their best. 

“They sat in and made it difficult for us and I thought we weren’t as good as we should be. That’s what it’s going to be like for us this season and it’s up to us to move the ball quickly. Cowdenbeath defended very well and blocked a lot of what we created in front of goal, but we got that goal in the end and it was just one of those games.” 

Neilson also had some comments to make about young midfielder Scott McGill after a solid debut:

“I thought he did very well. I was pleased with him, he moved the ball very well and had some nice switches of play.” 

Hearts go top of the group after this victory and play Raith Rovers at Tynecastle on Tuesday, looking to make it three wins from three. As for Cowdenbeath, they make the long trip up to Inverness on Tuesday in search of their first points in the group.

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