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26 of 036 Gordon Smith [3] 84SC H

Hearts 1 Auchinleck Talbot 0: Driven bananas

Nick Rodger
Golf Correspondent

In the week that Vladimir Romanov delivered another "media monkeys" jibe at the press, Hearts came very close to the mother of all slip-ups on a banana skin from the junior ranks.

The financial crisis engulfing the Tynecastle club has been the darkest period of a proud history, but they flirted with new, desperate depths last night as Auchinleck Talbot threatened to hold on for what would have been a jaw-dropping draw and a replay in Ayrshire.

In the end, it was Hearts who broke hearts as Gordon Smith rattled in a scrambled winner in the 84th minute. Yet, there was almost a fairytale conclusion to affairs when Gordon Pope stroked the ball into the net in injury-time only for the linesman to temper the joy with a controversial flag for offside.

For Andrew Leishman, the visiting goalkeeper, the late concession was particularly cruel. The inspired 23-year-old was the rock upon which a series of Hearts efforts perished and he illuminated a quite superb display with a fine first-half penalty save from debutant Fraser Mullen, one of eight changes to the line-up made by Hearts manager Paulo Sergio. He didn't deserve to be beaten in the way he was, though. Charging from his line to claim a cross, Leishman collided with his team-mate Bryan Slavin and the loose ball was pounced on by the lurking Smith.

"It was maybe just a lack of communication," said Leishman. "I did shout, but then in front of crowds like this you have to shout that bit louder to what we're used to. It was unfortunate as we tried so hard. The penalty save started the day off really well and that gave us the platform to build a performance."

And it was quite a performance from the nine-time Scottish Junior Cup winners, burnished by organisation, spirit and robust tackling. "I'm very proud," said manager, Tommy Sloan. "We needed Andy to have a big day and he did. The goal was just two committed players going for the ball. You can't fault them for that. Was our goal offside? It was hard to say. Gordon thought he was on, but he would say that."

Hearts, Scottish Cup winners seven times, went into the match on the back of a productive and purposeful run of three wins and a draw in their last four SPL encounters. Given the amount of changes, it was perhaps no surprise that there was little evidence of that form in the first half as they toiled to break down Auchinleck's resistance.

They were handed a chance for an opener in the 18th minute when Arvydas Novikovas was felled in the area by Pope. With an appalling recent record from the spot – a variety of players had missed three in a row prior to yesterday's award – the opportunity must have been greeted with a degree of foreboding. Those concerns came to pass as Mullen's low strike was turned round the post by the strong right hand of Leishman.

The Auchinleck custodian must have felt unbeatable when Rudi Skacel, who had contributed next to nothing as the match meandered on, emerged from his slumbers and engineered an opening with a tidy swivel in the area, only to see his left-footed lash magnificently blocked.

The visiting rearguard was dropping deeper and deeper as half-time loomed but, with legs and bodies being hurled in front of the ball, they continued to thwart the menacing advances.

When Auchinleck did break out, they caused Hearts a moment of anguish. Steven White's shot from the edge of the box turned into more of a cross, but Keir Milliken, darting in from the right, could only direct a sliding volley into the grateful arms of Jamie MacDonald.

Jeered off at the interval, Hearts threw David Templeton and Jordan Morton into the fray but the huffing a puffing continued against a backdrop of frustrated howls of derision.

The mood was not helped when Darren Barr was stretchered off after a long delay following a fearsome clattering of heads. It was another clatter which would provide some much-needed relief, however, as Leishman and Slavin's collision after Jamie Morton's cross led to the decisive, and fortuitous, Hearts winner.

"Perhaps people expected a 5-0 or a 6-0, but if you don't score early you put yourself in trouble," said Sergio, who defended his decision to make wholesale changes. "Yes, I take risks. But I believe in these players. For me, Mullen was the man of the match. I liked the courage of the kid, to pick the ball up and take the penalty. But congratulations to our opponents. They made it hard."

Taken from the Herald

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