A very young Hearts side went down battling at Kilmarnock this afternoon, losing 1-0.
Lee Erwin’s first-half goal was the difference between to the two teams, but Hearts’ youngsters gave a great account of themselves, with four 16-year-olds making their first-team debuts during the course of the afternoon.
Craig Levein was forced into a raft of changes following the superb midweek derby win over Hibs, after being hit with a wave of injuries and suspensions, with the club unable to call back players that were out on Development Loans.
Debuts were handed to 16-year-olds Chris Hamilton and Cameron Logan, with 17-year-olds Harry Cochrane and Anthony McDonald starting while 19-year-old Lewis Moore was deployed at left back.
Kilmarnock had the game’s first chance after three minutes. Stephen O’Donnell sprung the offside trap out on the right to cut back for Greg Kiltie inside the box, but his first-time shot was beaten away by Jack Hamilton.
Hearts carved open the Killie defence on five minutes when David Milinkovic threaded through Kyle Lafferty, but with just too much pace on the ball Jamie MacDonald was able to rush out and smother it.
Killie capatlised on a slack pass to move the ball into the box for Aaron Tshibola on nine minutes, but Hamilton stopped his low drive.
Moments later the deadlock was broken. Lee Erwin gathered possession and weaved his way into the Hearts box before drilling beyond Hamilton and into the back of the net.
Kris Boyd went close to doubling Killie’s lead after 17 minutes when rifled a set piece from 20-yards that narrowly missed Hamilton’s left-hand post.
It should’ve been 1-1 four minutes later. Milinkovic latched on to a short pass to drive at the Killie defence before playing in Lafferty, but the striker’s low effort from the edge of the box was stopped by the left leg of MacDonald.
The young Jambos battled away but Killie looked dangerous going forward. Youssouf Mulumbu’s speculative thunderbolt went close to doubling Killie’s lead three minutes before half-time, but the 35-yard drive flew inches over the crossbar.
Hearts lost the services of Cochrane before the half was out, resulting in a debut for 16-year-old Connor Smith. He was joined on the pitch by fellow 16-year old Leeroy Makovora, who replaced Logan.
Jack Hamilton was at his best to deny Killie a certain second with eight minutes remaining. A ball into the back door found the unmarked Boyd, and his snapshot was brilliantly turned over the bar by the Hearts ‘keeper.
From the resulting corner, Stuart Findlay powered a header over the bar.
Erwin should’ve killed the game off in the 87th minute, getting the ball at the back post after it had ricocheted its way through the box, but his stab home was saved by the feet of Jack Hamilton on the goal-line.
Substitute Eamonn Brophy’s long-range effort was well saved by Hamilton as the Jambos played out the final few minutes with their back to the wall.
With a minute remaining, Erwin was fed inside the box but a stunning Hamilton save at his near post denied Killie again.
It was a courageous performance from a Hearts side made up mainly of teenagers, and a reminder that the Tynecastle youth system shows no signs of ending when it comes to producing some of Scotland’s brightest young talents.
Kilmarnock: MacDonald, O'Donnell, S.Boyd, Findlay, Taylor, Wilson (Burke, 77'), Mulumbu, Tshibola, Kiltie (Brophy, 55'), K.Boyd (Cameron, 90'), Erwin. Subs: MacKay, Greer, Simpson, Spencer.
Hearts: J.Hamilton, Logan (Makovora, 64'), C.Hamilton, Hughes, Moore, Callachan, Cochrane (C. Smith, 43'), Cowie, McDonald (Henderson, 72'), Milinkovic, Lafferty. Subs: McLaughlin, Currie, Ritchie, Ward.
Referee: Stephen Finnie