Diamonds hold their nerve to send Hearts crashing
Hearts fell at the very first Co-operative Cup hurdle as they crashed out on penalties to Kenny Black's solid and enterprising Airdrie United side at Tynecastle this evening. Although enjoying optical superiority for most of the 120 minutes, Csaba Laszlo's side found it impossible to break down their well-drilled opponents, and when it all boiled down to spot-kicks at the end, it was the men from the west who held their nerve better to record a famous victory in this first-ever match between Hearts and the reconstituted North Lanarkshire side.
Continuity was the order of the day for Hearts, as Csaba Laszlo resisted the temptation to make the wholesale changes at which he had hinted earlier in the week. Indeed, the only two changes from the narrow win against St Mirren on Saturday saw Eggert Jonsson replace Jason Thomson at full-back while Saulius Mikoliunas returned to the right wing, allowing Andrew Driver to be rested after his early-season exertions. No change between the sticks either, which made a pleasant change, Marian Kello continuing in goal after Janos Balogh's international clearance arrived too late for him to be included.
Not too many familiar faces among the Airdrie United line-up, but the two who were there did have previous at Tynecastle, Paul Di Giacomo and Simon Lynch both having scored in Gorgie in the not too distant past for Kilmarnock and Celtic respectively. And, of course, in the dugout was manager Kenny Black, himself a stalwart of that fine Hearts team of the mid to late-80s.
There was plenty of opportunity to reflect on those past exploits during a quiet opening to the match as Airdrie set up camp inside their own half. The home side weaved some pretty patterns as they tried to find a way through the forest of red and white jerseys barring their way to goal, but there wasn't too much in the way of penetration during those opening exchanges.
Things livened up after the first quarter hour though. First Larry Kingston picked up possession on half way before sliding a beautiful pass through the inside right channel for Miko. The winger's attempt to find Jamie Mole in the centre was well defended by the Diamonds back line.
Joseph Cardle was then booked for diving over Jonsson's outstretched leg, before more fine play by Hearts allowed Michael Stewart to slice into the area before falling in a heap with his marker. Mr Smith took a close look, but then decided that no infringement had taken place.
Miko then turned sharply in the area and delivered a great low cross that just begged to be tapped in by Obua, but somehow the Ugandan allowed the ball to slip under his foot. That was on 25 minutes and we were almost left ruing the miss six minutes later as Airdrie foraged forward to put pressure on the Hearts defence for almost the first time in the match.
Marius Zaliukas was guilty of a slack clearance, which fell straight to Di Giacomo at the edge of the area, and the striker responded with a dangerous low shot that arrowed towards Kello's goal. The Slovakian was up to the task, though, dropping quickly to his left to pull off a fine save.
Almost immediately, Obua turned on half way and picked out the galloping Mikoliunas with a sublime pass. Miko might have gone directly for goal, but elected instead to try and find Mole in the middle. Unfortunately Kevin McDonald was on hand to cut out the effort.
Despite the fact they had been under the cosh for most of the match, you could see the confidence grow ion the Airdrie players the longer the match remained scoreless. And indeed they might have secured themselves an unlikely lead as half time approached. First Di Giacomo thundered a 30-yard pile driver off the junction of post and crossbar, and then Kello had to look lively after Christophe Berra was short with an attempted back header.
Hearts began the second period hoping to re-establish the authority they had shown for the first half hour of the match, but the closest the came to threatening the Airdrie goal in the early stages was when Mikoliunas picked up possession at the edge of the area and sliced an effort high and wide into the gaping Gorgie Stand.
That was followed by another fine move involving the mercurial Lithuanian, Miko finding Kingston in acres of space on the right. The playmaker hung a tempting cross towards the penalty spot where Mole applied a first-time prod. The effort was on target, but lacked the pace to take it beyond Robertson, who got down well to his left to make the stop.
Ten minutes in and another neat move involving Mole, Mikoliunas and Stewart saw the Scot feed Kingston in the area. It looked a decent opportunity to cut the ball into the middle, but the Ghanaian was just unable to wrap his foot around the ball and his attempted cross flew harmlessly into the side netting. The Ghanaian did a little better shortly afterwards, playing in a tempting low cross for Mole to meet. This time the ball slipped just under the young Englishman's foot.
Obua and Mikoliunas further tested the swivel function on the seating in the Gorgie Stand with efforts that started off target and then swerved wildly away. We were midway through the half by this time and already turning our thoughts towards the unpleasant possibility of extra time, a thought that had apparently crossed Csaba's mind as well as he made his first substitutions of the evening.
Audrius Ksanavicius came on for the tiring Kingston with 20 minutes remaining, the midfielder just in time to see countryman Miko screw an effort high over the bar rather than pass inside to the waiting Obua. That was to be Miko's last contribution of the match, the Lithuanian replaced by Deividas Cesnauskis with 19 minutes to go.
Cesnauskis almost immediately added some craft to the work on the right hand side of midfield and soon he had Robertson at full stretch with a teasing cross towards the far post, which the keeper did well to push to safety. The same play then crossed from deep for Mole to rise unmarked and nod goalward, but the effort was tame and Robertson was able to gather with ease.
Airdrie were by now containing Hearts with some ease and even finding time to set up a chance or two of their own, substitute Simon Lynch going close with an effort that was deflected away from the diving Kello and just wide of the keeper's right-hand post. And the home side's desperation was illustrated further in the dying seconds when Ksanavicius was booked for diving inside the Diamonds penalty area.
Having failed to unlock the door during the regulation 90 minutes, Csaba decided it might be time to ram it down if necessary. Cue the introduction of Christian Nade for Mole, but the Frenchman found it every bit as difficult as his predecessor to gain much change out of Airdrie's increasingly resolute and increasingly impressive back line.
He did treat us to a sublime piece of individual skill wide on the right, twisting past his man to deliver a low ball that was knocked behind by a defender. Ksanavicius's delivery was almost as good, but again the Airdrie defence did just enough to crowd out Karipidis and Nade as they tried to convert. The first half of extra time concluded with Obua deftly curling a free-kick high into the Roseburn Stand.
The visitors' task was made harder immediately after the restart when Kevin McDonald received a second booking for a late challenge on Christophe Berra. That didn't do too much to change the pattern of the game, although nor did it necessarily make Hearts' task any easier because if anything Airdrie's defending became even more sold than before.
Strong running from Cesnauskis almost breached the line, but again Robertson got down well to save, before Nade was flagged offside as he lashed the rebound off the bar. A burst from Jonsson then deserved better than the low cross, which was easily dealt with by the defenders waiting in the middle, before Obua was off target again with an ambitious effort from 22 yards.
Cesnauskis again went close after another enterprising run right at the heart of the Airdrie defence. Fortunate to get the break of the ball at the edge of the area, the Lithuanian fired in a snapped effort which Robertson did well to stop and hold. The keeper was equally alive to the danger presented by Nade, again getting down superbly to block the Frenchman's shot on the turn, although he would have been helpless had Stewart managed to keep the rebound on target.
Penalties it was then.
Christos Karipidis netted comfortably to equalise Simon Lynch's opener, but Lee Wallace's effort was saved to leave Hearts trailing 3-1 as both Marc Smyth and Matthew Hazley converted for Airdrie. Eggert Jonsson's cool finish brought it back to 3-2 before Marian Kello stepped up with a fine save to block Darren Smith's attempt. Michael Stewart shot low into the corner to square things up at 3-3, but when Scott McLaughlin converted his side's fifth kick it was all down to David Obua to keep Hearts in the tournament. This he failed to do with a timid effort which Robertson saved at waist height to his left.
Hearts: Kello; Jonsson, Zaliukas, Berra, Wallace; Mikoliunas (Cesnauskis 71), Karipidis, Stewart, Obua; Kingston (Ksanavicius 69); Mole (Nade 92). Booked: Jonsson, Stewart, Ksanavicius. Subs not used: MacDonald, Palazuelos.
Airdrie United: Robertson; Smyth, Hazley, McDonald, Donnelly, Nixon, McDougall (Smith 82), McKenna, Di Giacamo (Lynch 77), McLaughlin, Cardle (Brown 80). Booked: Cardle, McDonald, McKenna. Sent Off: McDonald. Subs not used: Noble, Hollis.
Referee: Eddie Smith
Top man: Stephen Robertson
Join Iain Gibson, Mark Donaldson and Gary Mackay for LIVE coverage of tonight's game from 7.35pm on Hearts.TV