Hearts U20s produced a magnificent comeback to beat Stirling Albion 3-2 in the first round of the Irn-Bru Cup at Forthbank.
Going in 2-0 down at half-time after a brace of Marc McKenzie goals, the Wee Jambos rallied round and got back on level terms through Leon Jones and Ally Roy, before Russell McLean scored a spectacular winner to send the young maroons through to the second round.
Jon Daly fielded an inexperienced side, such is the rules of the competition that prevent U20s teams from playing any overage players, but was able to call upon the services of Dario Zanatta, with Kelby Mason, Daniel Baur, Callumn Morrison and McLean the other survivors from last season’s Youth Cup Final team.
Hearts started brightly with McLean in the thick of the action. He latched onto an early through ball ahead of Binos ‘keeper Cammy Binnie before hitting the deck, only to be denied a penalty. Then Morrison’s cross to the near post saw McLean nip in front of his man, but could only direct the ball over the bar.
Despite the positive start it was the hosts who took the lead after three minutes. McKenzie ran onto a long ball and from just inside the Hearts box chipped the onrushing Mason and the ball sailed into the back of the net.
The Wee Jambos didn’t let their heads go down and continued to press, searching for the equaliser. Zanatta skipped past his man on 15 minutes to create space for a 25-yard low drive, but he dragged his effort wide of the target, with Binnie pouncing on the ball to make doubly sure.
Harry Paton impressed in the middle of the park and in the 16th minute found McLean on the edge of the box, who turned and shot, but the effort lacked conviction and Binnie gathered easily.
Hearts thought they had equalised moments later. Paton’s shot from inside the box was deflected into the path of Zanatta who fired into the roof of the net, but he was flagged for offside.
By this point it was all Hearts, with Zanatta again going close, sliding in to try and meet Morrison’s brilliant ball in but he failed to connect by a matter of inches.
Stirling Albion gave a reminder how dangerous they could be in the 25th minute when McKenzie got to the byline and drilled a ball across the face of goal but there were no takers at the other end.
McKenzie was the hosts’ star man and nearly bagged his second of the game, dispossessing Aaron Reid before driving forward and thundering a shot goalward from 25-yards but Mason did well to dive across his goal to make a fine block.
27 minutes in and McKenzie did bag a brace, ghosting inbetween the Hearts defence to connect with a free-kick from the left and glance a header into the corner of the net from four-yards out.
The Wee Jambos started the second-half with a bang, halving the deficit only two minutes in. Centre-half Jones outjumped his marker to nod home a corner from the right to give Hearts a foothold back into the game.
Two minutes later it was all square. Morrison cut inside and fed Zanatta at the edge of the box, who slipped in substitute Roy to sweep the ball past the helpless Binnie.
At the other end Mason had to make a smart stop with his feet from Alex Docherty, then Roy went up the park and powered an effort inches over the bar from distance.
A moment of real magic from McLean saw Hearts take the lead in the 66th minute. 25-yards out from goal he gathered possession and curled an unstoppable effort right into the top corner of the net, leaving the despairing Binnie with no chance.
Stirling Albion passed up a golden opportunity to level proceedings minute later. Docherty got on the end of a cross from the left to head on target but it was straight at Mason who made a near point-blank stop.
The game was end to end and Hearts almost got a fourth when Roy brilliantly curled from an angle at the edge of the box but Binnie did well to fling himself to his left to palm the ball away.
With ten minutes remaining the match was still being played at a ferocious pace. Eddie Ferns drove forward for the hosts and tried his luck from 30-yards but Mason easily collected his low drive.
Zanatta nearly put the game to bed with four minutes remaining when he skinned his man and rounded the ‘keeper, but when he looked odds on to score, Albion’s Jamie Mills somehow made a fantastic goal-line block and the danger was cleared.
Andy Irving went close with a late drive that landed inches wide of Binnie’s left-hand post, but it mattered not a jot as the full time whistle sounded soon after and the impressive Wee Jambos find themselves in the second round of a senior cup competition.
Stirling Albion: Binnie, Mills, Burns, R. Smith, McKenzie (Henderson, 74'), Sam Davidson (D. Smith, 58'), Olanrewaju (Ferns, 65'), Scott Davidson, Kavanagh, McCue, Docherty. Subs: Fallens, Verlaque, Mazel, McAllister.
Hearts: Mason, Godinho (Vladislav, 78'), Jones, Baur, Reid, Morrison, Petkov (Roy, 46'), Paton, Zanatta, Irving, McLean (Currie, 90'). Subs: Vladislav, I. Smith, K. Smith, Baxter.
Referee: Steven Reid
Photo courtesy of Ron MacNeill