After two months and ten games without a victory, Hearts hit five goals past an out-of-sorts Airdrie at Tynecastle to book their place in the next round of the Scottish Cup. The home side showed great confidence going forward, but sloppiness amongst the back line remains: it reflects poorly on the visitors that they couldn’t capitalise on these errors. Manager Daniel Stendel had amassed only one point from five games before today, and this first win will bring a degree of relief.
The fourth round marks the point where first division sides enter the competition, and the gulf in class, two leagues thick, between the Gorgie outfit and Airdrie, was apparent from early on. The team known as The Diamonds showed spirit, but could not trump Hearts. Goals from Andy Irving, Sean Clare, Steven Naismith, Euan Henderson and Craig Halkett, four of those efforts arriving in the second half, condemned the away team to a heavy defeat, albeit one they will invariably learn from.
Airdrie entered the game sitting third in Scottish League One, two points off Raith in top spot. They are managed by Ian Murray, Edinburgh-born and servant of Hearts’ city rivals Hibernian for ten years over two spells. He knows these parts well and a win at Tynecastle would have brought immense personal satisfaction, as well as a sizeable cup upset. Hearts are bottom of the Scottish Premier League, but should now carry some momentum from this result into their fixture at Ross County on Wednesday.
There were four changes for Hearts from their last fixture, back at the end of December, and one for the visitors. With former captain Christophe Berra controversially banished to the reserves, new skipper Naismith inspired his team, scoring one goal, having another chalked off for offside, and grabbing a couple of assists.
Airdrieonians began the game with a daring 3-4-3 formation as Hearts stuck with 4-4-2. A glance at the away end revealed some interesting flags wielded by the travelling supporters, one in celebration of Chelsea FC, another in support of Donald Trump. Time will tell if Airdrie are made great again.
The first five minutes produced little of note, but shortly afterwards Conor Washington conjured a turn that would have given Dennis Bergkamp a stiffie, outfoxing the visiting defence and winning a corner. The resulting short corner then led to the opening goal, when Irving passed it through a crowd of players and into the bottom corner.
Hearts continued to expose Airdrie’s lack of full-backs, finding particular success on the right flank. On 14 minutes, they reproduced the corner routine which had resulted in Irving’s goal, almost grabbing a second in near-identical circumstances. By now the Jambos’ attackers were displaying all kinds of flicks, tricks and fancy footwork, and it was difficult to tell if we were watching Naismith or Neymar. There was a corresponding moment of quality on 18 minutes from Airdrie, when Paul McKay went all Gianfranco Zola and unleashed a flying back heel shot which whizzed just past the post.
With 27 minutes gone, Hearts received a blow when Aaron Hickey, a promising youngster who was still a foetus when euro banknotes were introduced and hadn’t been conceived when Enrique Iglesias released ‘Hero’, was taken off for Ben Garrucio. After the game, manager Stendel downplayed the severity of the knock, but we can only wait and see if Hickey misses further games.
The gegenpressen style introduced by Stendel continued to work wonders, as beleaguered Airdrie defenders hurriedly hoofed the ball forward under the slightest pressure, losing possession in so doing. The pressure proved too much on the touchline as well when, on 37 minutes, the visitors’ assistant manager Colin Cameron received the first and only booking of the match, apparently for dissent, from a referee otherwise reluctant to show his cards.
Having already lost Hickey to injury, not to mention striker Uche Ikpeazu in the warm-up to what the club Twitter charitably labelled a ‘groin niggle’, Michael Smith was next to come off. As with Hickey, Smith didn’t seem too wounded, but the bossman wasn’t taking any chances ahead of a heavy league schedule. Ollie Bozanic came on in his place a few minutes before half-time.
Naismith and Washington both missed golden chances at the close of the first 45, failing to take advantage of an increasingly chaotic defence. That Hearts were only a goal up at whistle’s blow was a reflection of their shoddy finishing, and you can bet that Stendel whipped out the haartrockner in the 15 minute break.
The home team, clearly invigorated and determined to make the game safe, came out in the second half looking confident. Naismith had the ball in the back of the net from a rebound on 52, only for the offside flag to be correctly raised. Two minutes later, Hearts did get their goal, and there were no complaints about it. Substitute Garrucio had his cross headed away, only for the ball to drop to Sean Clare, whose first-time volley went top bins and sent the Jambos in the stands potty.
On 57 minutes, The Diamonds had a chance of their own, Callum Smith firing into the side-netting, but, one minute later, Hearts replied with another, surely decisive, goal. Naismith had been the standout player all afternoon, and finally got on the scoresheet when he tapped in from a Henderson cross after the 19-year-old burst through the Airdrie defence.
The away team brought on Nat Wedderburn and Craig Thomson midway through the second half, and the latter had a good opportunity to pull a goal back in the 70th minute, but he couldn’t guide his shot past Joel Pereira. Two minutes later, the irrepressible Naismith shimmied into the area and cut back for a grateful Henderson to score his first goal for the club. Hearts were four up and looking for more.
In the 77th minute, the Jam Tarts’ captain left the field to a standing ovation, his job done. His quality, honed over several years in the Premier League and the upper reaches of Scottish football, had been the difference. Jamie Walker came on in his place. Soon afterwards, Airdrie stopper David Hutton spilled a simple catch, not for the first time in the afternoon, giving his defenders further palpitations. It was indicative of the nerves shown by the third division team, who seemed awed by the occasion but will have learnt a great deal from their humbling.
In stoppage time, four became five courtesy of Halkett’s effort from an Irving cross. The whistle signalled for full-time and Hearts fans were celebrating only a second win since September. Afterwards, Stendel stressed the importance of getting the first goal, and teased at some new arrivals at Tynecastle, saying that we could expect “one or two players” to sign for the club before the Ross County game.
Vice-captain John Souttar expressed total confidence in the German coach’s methods, but cautioned that this was “just the start” and that the players “need to keep going”. The calibre of opponent may not have been high this Saturday, but with this kind of attacking flair, the Jambos can lift themselves off the base of the league and push towards mid-table respectability.
Image: Conrad Maddox