2020 just keeps on producing as Wighton bags Hat-trick

Craig Wighton put himself firmly in contention to start in Hearts’ opening Championship match on Friday, as he bagged himself a hat-trick in a 3-1 win over Raith Rovers on Tuesday night. Jamie Mcintosh reports.

This time last year, a fixture between these two sides would have been a relatively friendly affair due to the positive relationship between the two clubs. Now however, after the premature ending of the 2019/20 season and the dialogue that followed, this fixture certainly had some added bite to it.

In July, Raith Rovers chairman Bill Clark admitted that he felt the relationship between the two clubs had been “tainted” due to the implications of calling the season back in May. Clark revealed then that he wanted to “build bridges” with Hearts, after Raith sided with the 81% of SPFL teams who chose to relegate the Jambos, alongside Partick Thistle and Stranraer, on a points per game basis. 

Hearts went into the game sitting top of their Betfred Cup group after two wins from their opening two fixtures against Inverness and Cowdenbeath respectively. Meanwhile, visitors Raith won the Fife derby on Saturday in their opening game of the group stage. 

The hosts made eight changes from Saturday’s underwhelming display against Cowdenbeath. Full backs Aidy White and Jamie Brandon retained their places, alongside 18-year-old Scott McGill who impressed during Saturday’s competitive debut. There was a first Hearts start for Stephen Kingsley, as well as a start for Peter Haring who captained the side without the presence of Steven Naismith or Craig Halkett in the starting XI. Harry Cochrane was also brought in from the cold to start. Hearts lined up with a back three, with Haring in the middle, flanked by Brandon on the right and Kingsley on the left.

The visitors made two changes from their victory over East Fife at the weekend, seeing Fernandy Mendy and Brad Spencer replace Ethan Ross and Dan Armstrong. Raith were also without their manager’s presence in the dugout, as John McGlynn was resting after undergoing surgery last week.

The game had barely kicked off when Lewis Moore won a free kick in a useful position for the hosts. Stephen Kingsley’s free kick struck the wall – more specifically though, it struck the arm of Kyle Benedictus, leading referee Craig Napier to point to the spot and award Hearts a penalty.

Craig Wighton has had his fair share of critics in recent times, however he sent Jamie MacDonald the wrong way from the spot and made it 1-0 to Hearts in the opening minute.

The visitors responded well, with midfielder Regan Hendry – once of Celtic – always showing for the ball and voicing his displeasure at his teammates if he wasn’t given it. Manny Duku’s physical presence was causing Hearts’ back three problems and Raith did manage to deliver a couple of dangerous crosses into the Hearts box in the early stages of the match – with no success, however.

Hearts looked to fight back against the pressure, as Brandon floated a long ball in behind Mendy, which saw Wighton in on goal. This caused MacDonald made his first save of the evening, denying the striker of his second goal of the night from a tight angle. 

Good link up play, again involving Wighton, saw Lewis Moore take aim from the edge of the box, with his goal bound effort deflected behind for a corner, which Haring headed wide. 

Right back Regan Tumilty had the visitors’ first real chance, as he cut inside of Aidy White, but the defender saw his left footed shot saved by Ross Stewart after good hold up play by striker Duku. 

Rovers did look dangerous on the break, or when they managed to play through the Hearts high press, which was a bold strategy from Robbie Neilson. 

Despite some dangerous play from the away side, Hearts would double their lead just before half time. Kingsley played a ball down the channel to Wighton, who got in behind the Raith back line. Benedictus, who gave away Hearts’ first penalty, slipped in his pursuit of the striker, bringing Wighton down and leaving the referee with no choice but to award another penalty for the home side. After giving away two penalties, Benedictus will have been counting himself lucky to have stayed on the park.

Wighton dusted himself down and sent his penalty the same way. Despite MacDonald diving the right way, Wighton’s penalty was converted, making it 2-0 to the home side just before the break.

The hosts almost scored another before the half concluded. The lively Euan Henderson skipped away from Mendy on the left-hand side, drove into the box and curled a shot past goalkeeper MacDonald. The goalkeeper was beaten but Benedictus redeemed himself massively by clearing the effort off the line and making sure Raith were still in the game before the second half.

The half concluded and despite a fairly back-and-forth affair, Rovers found themselves with a lot of work to do after two individual errors from Benedictus had Hearts 2-0 up.

There was a good chance early in the second half for summer signing Elliott Frear to seal the three points for Hearts after a good move up the left, but MacDonald denied him at his near post.

Rovers were given the lifeline they so desperately needed on 53 minutes. Striker Manny Duku managed to get in behind the Hearts defence on the left-hand side of the box and dispatched a fantastic finish past Stewart to half the deficit.

Robbie Neilson reacted to that goal with a formation change. Central defender Mihai Popescu was introduced as Hearts switched to a back four for the remainder of the match.

Benedictus had a very busy evening; he was lucky to still be on the park after giving away the second penalty and, again, was fortunate not to be given his marching orders after a late foul on substitute Jamie Walker. 

The game was finely poised at this stage and Rovers were very much in the game. Hearts were looking tired and you got the feeling that the visitors were on top in the closing stages.

A Raith free kick out on the left was well saved by Stewart, who was nearly caught out at his near post by substitute Lewis Vaughan. That was as good as it got for Rovers in their search for an equaliser.

Wighton secured all three points and the match ball with five minutes to play, with one of the best individual goals you’ll see in Scotland this season. He held off Iain Davidson just inside the Hearts half, leaving the striker one on one with Benedictus. He turned the Rovers captain inside out before slotting the ball past MacDonald. A really classy goal from a player, who prior to this evening, would have been very low in confidence.

Wighton almost headed in a fourth in stoppage time but the striker had to settle for the three, as Hearts recorded a big win ahead of Friday’s opening Championship match against Dundee.

After the match, Wighton admitted that after he scored two penalties with plenty of time remaining in the game, his heart was set on the hat-trick: 

“I didn’t have too many chances after the penalties, so I was starting to get a bit frustrated, it was getting late and I got the opportunity to have a run and thankfully I managed to get the third as well.

“It’s been frustrating for me here, to finally get off the mark tonight and to get the three goals it’ll do me the world of good, so hopefully I can just kick on now.” 

Manager Robbie Neilson made eight changes to the side tonight ahead of Friday’s league opener against Dundee but was still delighted to get nine points out of nine:

“We really just treated the Betfred as a warmup for the league games, but it’s good to get through them, and we’re sitting the top group with nine points out of nine, so really pleased with that.”

Neilson was impressed with the hat-trick hero Wighton, who has now given the manager a dilemma about which striker to start on Friday.

“Yeah, it gives me a decision to make, that’s what I asked him to do, obviously we knew Boycie was going to be away, so over the pre-season games we started building him (Wighton) up to make sure he was ready for it. I know the potential he’s got and he’s starting to fulfil that, I think tonight you’ve seen somebody who was fit and hungry for it.”

Hearts and Dundee get the new Championship season underway on Friday night at Tynecastle. Meanwhile, Raith’s opening game, on their return to the Championship, is against Arbroath on Saturday.

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