The Wee Jambos booked passage to the Scottish Youth Cup final last night, grinding out a gutsy 2-1 victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle on a wintry evening at Tynecastle Park.
A first half strike from Murray Thomas, allied with a composed finish from super sub Mackenzie Kirk in the second 45, ensured that Steven Naismith’s Under-18s reached Hampden – setting up a showdown against either Hibernian or Rangers in the big final.
It was an especially pleasing night for the club considering Hearts missed out on a spot in the final two years ago when Kilmarnock narrowly edged the class of 2020 out in our previous semi-final appearance.
With conditions in Gorgie chucking down a copious amount of rain and sleet, the Wee Jambos had to weather an early storm of pressure from Caley Thistle. Backed by a healthy home crowd, Hearts knew they were in for a cracker.
The Highlanders made their intentions clear right from the off: Calum Mackay registering the first shot of the night with an effort high and wide over Liam McFarlane’s crossbar. Finlay Pollock, the architect of many of Hearts’ passing moves, threaded a perfectly weighted through ball to a marauding Rocco Friel out on the right. The full back wasted no time in dashing for the byline and whipping a quick ball across goal – but Caley ‘keeper Gillian came out hard and smothered the ball.
Inverness hunted as a pack, and their relentless press caught Hearts out on occasion. Robbie Thompson pounced like a lion in the tall grass on a slack pass to go through on goal and, were it not for a rapid reaction save from Liam McFarlane to tip it over, the Caley Jags could have been one to the good.
Naisy wanted his young charges to show their mental strength on the big stage, and the kids certainly displayed that in buckets. Recovering from a series of errors, Hearts soon raced into the lead: a sweeping move from the Wee Jambos culminated in Murray Thomas smashing home the opener, supplied by Sandiland's cross across the face of goal.
With the pendulum swinging back in HMFC’s favour: Hearts moved in to see if they could build on their promising start. A series of corners went tantalisingly close to delivering a second, with Finlay Pollock seeing his short-range shot go a whisker away from crossing the line before being booted high into the Gorgie sky.
ICT were still game though, and few around Tynie were shocked to see this energetic Inverness team pull themselves back on level terms. Ethan Cairns rifling a powerful effort into the roof of the net on 36 minutes to leave the tie hanging in the balance in the second half.
With all to play for, and the ominous possibility of extra time hanging in the air, both Hearts and ICT knew they had to go for the kill in normal time.
Indeed, Inverness started brightly: Ben Barron broke through the Hearts defence and turned on the afterburners towards goal, dragging his effort narrowly wide and smacking a gate in the Roseburn on 52 minutes.
With seemingly never-ending energy, Naisy turned to his bench to reinforce the Wee Jambos’ firepower. He opted for Mackenzie Kirk, son of Hearts hero Andy, a move that would prove to be a stroke of genius.
The young man turned back time with a finish his old man would be proud of, displaying some remarkable composure in the box before dispatching a perfectly hit ball beyond Gillian to send Tynecastle into raptures after 78 minutes.
Roared on by their friends and family in the stand: the Wee Jambos fought tooth and nail to hold on, showing clever game management to see the tie out and secure the triumph.
The Hearts XI: McFarlane, Friel, Aitken, Flatman, McLuckie (Drysdale 85’), Rathie, Tait, Pollock, Forrester (Simpson 45’), Sandilands (Kirk 63’), Thomas
Subs not used: Paris, Hambrook, Ross, Spence