Hearts made it four wins out of four in the Premier Sports Cup with a deserved 1-0 victory over Inverness CT in front of almost 3000 fans at a baking Tynecastle Park.
Jamie Walker's second-half strike sealed the victory with the visitors also reduced to 10 men late on after Michael Gardyne received a straight red for a tackle on Walker. The Jambos will now face Celtic away in the next round of the competition.
Robbie Neilson made two changes to the side that won in Stirling in midweek, with Armand Gnanduillet making his first start of the season, and Finlay Pollock earning a start after netting a goal off the bench at Forthbank Stadium.
John Souttar wasn’t risked ahead of next week’s match with Celtic after sustaining a minor knock at Stirling, while Peter Haring dropped to the bench.
Hearts thought they’d won a penalty in the first five minutes when Josh Ginnelly pounced on a loose pass in the area and went down under a challenge, but referee Nick Walsh deemed there to be insufficient contact and booked Ginnelly.
Ginnelly was looking sharp early doors, and moments later, he fizzed a low ball across the face of goal, missing Gnanduillet by inches. Gary Mackay-Steven gathered at the back post, and fed Liam Boyce whose powerful effort was pushed away by Mark Ridgers.
Pollock looked keen to grab his second senior goal after opening his account on Tuesday night, and came close when he made space in the area before curling a shot at goal that was well saved by Ridgers.
Ridgers came to the rescue again for Inverness, just after the half hour mark. Gnanduillet collected the ball on the left, sped past his marker and shot for goal but again Ridgers was equal to it, making a fine save with his legs.
Down the other end, Hearts had Alex Cochrane to thank for keeping the scores level. Tom Walsh brought down a cross, set himself up and shot for goal but Cochrane threw himself at the effort, diverting it over the bar and earning himself a big hug from Craig Gordon in the process.
Hearts should have been ahead just before the interval. First, Gnanduillet beat the offside trap and hit the ball across the face of goal for Boyce, who was just too late with the finish and hit it into the side netting. Then, in stoppage time, Ginnelly drove at his marker, firing a cut back across the face of goal and Pollock met the cross with a goal bound shot that Ridgers somehow stopped from crossing the line.
Into the second half, and Ridgers was at it again. Ginnelly hooked a ball to the back post for Mackay-Steven, who volleyed into the ground and towards goal, with Ridgers pushing the ball round the post. From the Cochrane corner, Gnanduillet volleyed at the front post, with Ridgers tipping it onto the post, and Pollock also somehow hitting the woodwork from the rebound.
Hearts finally got the breakthrough with 15 minutes remaining, when Gnanduillet won a flick-on at the halfway line and set up a two-on-one breakaway. Boyce controlled the ball brilliantly, and slipped a precise pass through to substitute Jamie Walker, who had been on the park for ten minutes.
Walker’s touch set it up on his left foot and he arrowed a low shot powerfully into the near post beyond Ridgers. It was a moment of real quality, which was required to beat the impressive former Hearts stopper. Walker was at it again a minute later, playing a neat one-two with Mackay-Steven at the edge of the area, and shooting from 25 yards with Ridgers pushing it away.
Walker was somehow denied on two more occasions by Ridgers, both after lovely flowing moves. First, Cochrane squared for Mackay-Steven in the final third, he slid in Boyce who played in Walker, and Ridgers saved with his feet. Then, sub Euan Henderson played a beautiful one-two with Mackay-Steven, whose back heel played Henderson in. Henderson squared for Walker, whose shot almost squeezed through Ridgers’ legs but was somehow denied on the line.
Walker was the main man, and a bit of frustration from Inverness crept in. Michael Gardyne was shown a red card for a shocking lunge on Walker at the halfway line two minutes from time. In stoppage time, Boyce attempted an overhead kick, which ended up with Mackay-Steven, who fired over in the final action of the match.
Hearts: Gordon, M. Smith, Kingsley, Boyce, Mackay-Steven, Halliday (Haring, 65'), Cochrane, Halkett, Gnanduillet (Henderson, 84'), Pollock (Walker, 65'), Ginnelly. Subs: Stewart, McEneff, C. Smith, Popescu, Watson, Denholm.
Inverness CT: Ridgers, Duffy, Deas, Devine, Gardyne, Sutherland (Jamieson, 81'), MacGregor, Walsh (McDonald, 81'), Broadfoot, Duku (Allardice, 70'), McAlear. Subs: Mackay, Harper, Fyffe, Hyde, Hennem, Cairns.
Referee: Nick Walsh