Stevenson's Rocket Derails Hibs As Hearts Steam Ahead
"Such is the way that fairy tales are written."
Not the words of Hans Christian Anderson or even a Walt Disney scriptwriter. You don't even need to be told. Who else could it be, other than a football commentator, describing a most unlikely of comebacks?
Being 22 points behind their Edinburgh neighbours, though, and having just three players 20 or over in their line-up, Hearts could have been forgiven that they were the ugly ducklings, marooned, as it were, at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership. By the end of this hotly contested League Cup quarter final at Easter Road, though, Hibernian manager Pat Fenlon would've been more attuned to the Brothers Grimm.
Two matches this season so far against the most ill equipped and inexperienced Hearts squad for a generation. Two defeats, home and away. Little wonder a small part of the green half of Edinburgh were protesting afterwards, demanding the sacking of the former Shelbourne and Bohemians boss. Grimm reality in Leith despite the sunshine.
First things first though. Once again, the Jam Tarts put in a phenomenal effort. Roared on by a huge Gorgie contingent, making up a third of the near 17,000 crowd - Gary Locke's young side rode their luck in the early stages - shocked their hosts with a stunning goal, then defended magnificently.
The only goal of the game came in the 34th minute. After soaking up relentless Hibs pressure from the start, the free kick Kevin McHattie won in his own half, after a foul from Rowan Vine, was seen more as a respite than anything. Ryan Stevenson, however, had other ideas. As the ball came forward hopefully, Stevenson approached the penalty area, just to the left of goal, and hammered in a shot that hit the roof of the near post net.
It was a goal as stunning in its timing as much as its delivery - which sent the visiting supporters even more delirious - for up until then Hibernian had utterly dominated proceedings. They were desperately unlucky not to have drawn first blood in just the fourth minute, when a header from James Hanlon, after a fine Scott Robertson cross, smacked off the post with keeper Jamie MacDonald completely beaten.
It was Robertson himself who was foiled just after the quarter of an hour mark, but this time it was due to some superb keeping from MacDonald, brilliantly stopping his point blank shot with the rebound scrambled clear. Two minutes later Robertson was somehow denied again, his low shot on the right goal bound for the far corner until McDonald amazingly parried onto the crossbar and over.
Hanlon also missed another reasonable chance, after a corner on the right wasn't cleared, but then Ryan Stevenson nipped forward just before the half hour mark, a clever dribble and shot that found the side netting. From thereon in, the Hibernian dominance seemed to just dissipate, and though Stevenson's goal was a real shock, Hearts by that time had weathered the Hibs storm.
It was in no small way due to the incredible work rate running throughout every player wearing a maroon shirt, closing down space, running, chasing, harrying, making any player in green and white earn the right to play. Which, quite often, they didn't. Typical of the Hearts never say die spirit were the centre half pairing, Danny Wilson and Dylan McGowan, who never shirked a header or tackle, and chased every lost cause.
If Hibernian supporters were displeased by their side's performance in the first 45 minutes, it was to get worse. The Leith side huffed and puffed with their possession and territorial advantage, but produced just one clear-cut chance. Again, MacDonald came to the rescue just after 70 minutes. Liam Craig at last sprung the offside trap on the left, and as he advanced on goal, seemed a certain scorer. McDonald again, somehow saved low from 10-yards.
After that, the writing was on the wall, not only for Hibs in the Scottish League Cup this season, but also maybe for Pat Fenlon's future. It was summed up neatly late on when Easter Road captain James McPake was given a straight red for a two footed lunge on Callum Paterson. By that time the game, and the League Cup fairy tale, was up for the Hibees.
After a cacophony of boos greeted the home side and management at full time, Fenlon was defiant. "We dominated the match but didn't take our chances. They had one chance and took it with a fantastic strike. I couldn't have asked for more from my players."
It is possibly such posturing, in the aftermath of yet another embarrassment in an Edinburgh derby, that fuelled protests calling for his dismissal outside the stadium. Hibernian certainly dominated almost all of the first half hour, and created plenty of great chances, thwarted by woodwork and brilliant keeping. But for the other hour, they rarely threatened, that one great save being the only other time MacDonald in the Hearts goal was called into action.
As for Locke, his Tynecastle counterpart, his view was a mixture of elation and realism. "It was a fantastic result. Jamie MacDonald earned his corn with one or two fantastic saves. We put in a really good performance tonight and we need to take that into the league games."
That's perhaps an understatement. Fifteen points adrift on the rest of the Scottish Premiership - just as they were at the season's start - thanks to their points deduction for entering administration, it looks a forlorn task for Heart of Midlothian to stay up. But cups are where dreams can come true. Where fairy tales can be written.
Though if he'd turned up at Easter Road tonight, perhaps not even Hans Christian Anderson would've believed it.
Hibernian 0, Heart of Midlothian 1