HEARTS’ YOUNGSTERS HIT FIVE
Raith were given a lesson in finishing by a well-oiled Hearts side this evening, the home side falling to a heavy 0-5 defeat at the hands of their Edinburgh rivals. Despite creating several chances and enjoying good spells of possession particularly in an even first half, Hearts’ cohesion and fluency paid dividends with Raith finishing the game a clear second best.
With a very young average age in their starting XI, the visitors created the better chances, finished clinically, and played with a spirit and enthusiasm which Raith could match only in spells. Grant Murray will no doubt continue to mix his side in the last friendly of the pre-season against Inverness on Saturday, in the hope of improvement before the competitive season begins in earnest in ten days’ time.
With two pre-season games under their belts, Raith’s starting eleven showed several combinations familiar from this season’s two previous encounters. Elliot and Spence partnered up front, with Cardle and Grant Anderson on the flanks, and Liam Fox and Kevin Moon starting in the centre of midfield. At centre-back, Dougie Hill partnered new signing Paul Watson, who joined from Livingston earlier in the day. Ross Laidlaw started in goal, having played against Sheffield United and stepped down to the bench for the match against Hibernian.
Although at a low ebb off the field, Hearts are still a formidable opposition on the pitch. Tonight’s team saw manager Gary Locke make only one enforced change, with Scotland U-21 midfielder Jason Holt missing out after suffering severe blisters in the weekend 2-1 win over Dunfermline. The Hearts side still retained a familiar feel from last season, with Ryan Stevenson leading the line and captaining the side. Many of the Hearts youngsters gained Premier League experience last season.
As had been forecast, Hearts brought a large and vocal travelling support from the Capital, contributing more than half of the crowd of 1,829.
The game was still settling down as a context when Hearts took the lead in the fourth minute. Hill and Watson both tried to clear a high cross, a Stevenson shot was deflected, and left-back Kevin McHattie found space to fire home from close-range.
Unsettled by the early concession, Raith took several minutes to string cohesive passes together. Moon’s clearance over the Pratt Street boundary wall was typical of Raith’s lack of togetherness in the opening stages.
Ten minutes had passed before Raith forced their first corner – neat interplay between Grant Anderson and Jason Thomson forcing McHattie into defensive duties to clear. Anderson’s resulting corner was flashed goalwards by Elliot, Macdonald saving well at point-blank range, and Hamill clearing from under his own cross-bar.
Fox and Moon worked busily in midfield, feeding both Elliot and Spence. With Raith enjoying some concerted spells of possession, Hearts posted occasional warnings to the home defensive ranks. After thirteen minutes, a rare lapse from Thomson allowed Hearts livewire Billy King to escape goalwards, King feeding Stevenson who’s weak shot was gathered by Laidlaw.
The home side continued to press. Hearts’ keeper Macdonald rushed from his line to beat Spence to a through-ball, Elliot fed Cardle who’s cross lashed the side netting, and Anderson continued to cause problems down the visitors’ left-hand side.
With twenty minutes gone, a high Anderson cross found Elliot, who’s looping header evaded Macdonald’s far post by inches. Following a slip from McHattie, Anderson’s cross was palmed clear by the Hearts keeper with Elliot loitering with intent. Moments later, a Fox free-kick found Dougie Hill, but the big defender’s header drifted wide.
Just before the half-hour, Cardle dropped a beautiful lay-off to Fox from an Anderson switch – Fox’s 20 yard drive though central required a solid save from the young Hearts keeper.
Winger David Smith was one of several Hearts players on show with a previous loan spell at Starks under his belt. He swapped flanks several times in the first half from his usual berth wide on the right – once drawing a loose challenge from Thomson and escaping toward goal, new centre-half Watson sliding in to clear.
Having signed for Raith earlier in the afternoon, Watson enjoyed a solid first-half, notably nullifying the powerful Stevenson’s aerial threat. With height and pace, Murray will be hoping Watson develops into a mature and steadying presence alongside Hill, although the continued experience of Laurie Ellis will no doubt be beneficial as the season progresses also.
Five minutes before half-time, Raith came closest to levelling. Spence timed his break between the Hearts centre-backs and played in Fox, with the midfielder’s flashing cross narrowly evading the onrushing Elliot at the far post.
Despite absorbing much home pressure, Hearts capitalised on their final chance of the first half. Youngster Calum Tapping freed Billy King with a slide-rule pass through the midfield. The front-man shuffled his feet, created a yard beyond Watson, and fired powerfully through Laidlaw from 20 yards. The Raith keeper pounded his fists in frustration – having nearly been level, Raith would go in at the break two goals down.
Raith frustration nearly led to a third concession before half-time, with Jamie Walker slipping Thomson only for the Raith full-back to clip the striker’s heels. Hamill’s free-kick was strong, but Laidlaw held on.
After arguably finishing the half on top despite losing a late goal, Raith started weakly after the break. Hearts, in contrast, were sent out by manager Gary Locke to finish the game as a contest. Walker hurried Laidlaw into a blocked clearance, a Watson slip let Walker run in on goal, and Stevenson’s resulting shot deflected wide.
Moments later, the match was over as a contest. A high ball through midfield was mis-judged by Watson, allowing Walker to sprint clear. He slotted calmly beyond the advancing Laidlaw, before turning away to take the plaudits of the travelling fans.
Raith rallied briefly. Cardle crossed dangerously into the Hearts box, and shortly after showed good awareness to release an over-lapping Booth, who again threatened the Hearts six-yard box with his centre. Elliot headed wide with Spence also threatening. From an Anderson cross, Elliot’s dummy allowed Fox the chance to shoot from close range, only for the strike to fly narrowly over.
Spence and Cardle were withdrawn, replaced by former Hearts striker Gordon Smith and Ross Callachan. The latter change allowed Jason Thomson briefly to play in a more advanced right-wing role, with Grant Anderson moving to the left. As with many of his pre-prepared plans for this evening’s game, Grant Murray may consider that his tactical switch didn’t bear fruit – Thomson looked out of sorts in a more advanced position, and regularly found himself either ahead of the ball or in a poor position to provide options to his over-worked midfield.
In the 64th minute, another slip in the Raith midfield allowed Walker to drive at the Raith defence from deep. With Stevenson unmarked outside him, the Hearts goal-scorer brought a good save from Laidlaw from 20 yards – Stevenson knocked home to rebound to make it 0-4.
Despite the deficit, Raith continued to create chances. Hearts full-back Hamill was at full-stretch to clear a low cross from Raith substitute Smith; Laurie Ellis, on for the debutant Watson, flicked on a Liam Fox corner, forcing a clearing header from Calum Tapping; and Smith’s clever dummy allowed Thomson cross, Hearts keeper Macdonald commanding his area to clear the danger. Callachan worked a yard of space, and smashed a rising shot over Macdonald’s bar.
Manager Murray made further changes. After being denied a debut goal against Sheffield United due to a fine late save, a trialist was brought on to add a third body to the Raith attack in the closing stages. With one run and shot, the rangy front-man was unlucky not to get his name on the score-sheet here too. After Callachan spread play intelligently from right to left, the trialist was blocked as he looked to shoot, and Elliot was bundled over from behind as he sought to pull the trigger from ten yards. The referee, also enjoying an inconsistent pre-season, looked away.
Although Raith could be entitled to think that nothing had gone for them at all during the 90 minutes, they tired in the closing stages, with Hearts beginning to dominate possession. Although elder statesman Gary Naismith did well to block a Jason Thomson effort from a corner, it was no surprise when Hearts scored their fifth and final goal of the night. Naismith’s cross evaded the Raith defence, and young substitute Gary Oliver headed past Laidllaw. Hearts fans were euphoric, spilling out of the North Stand on the final whistle full of optimism for the season ahead.
For Raith, tonight’s fixture was a lesson in finishing, and in capitalising on midfield possession. Although Raith played well in spells, beaten only by slicker and sharper opponents, the main task may be in rebuilding confidence before the Cup visits of Stirling Albion and Queens Park in the weeks ahead.
Photographs: Tony Fimister Report: Andrew Fairlie
Photographs copyright Tony Fimister
John Mainland spoke to the gaffer after the game