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Colts before their time: remembering Heart of Midlothian’s last stand in the Petrofac Training Cup

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In just over a fortnight’s time, Heart of Midlothian Colts will cross the Irish Sea to face League of Ireland side Waterford in the Third Round of the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Cup. Having comfortably despatched Albion Rovers and Cowdenbeath in the previous two rounds, this tie marks the young Hearts’ side’s first foray into the final 32 – and their first cross-border encounter – since the competition opened its doors to Premiership Colts teams and representatives from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in 2016.

While the Colts fly the flag nowadays, it was an entirely different affair five years ago, with Hearts’ relegation in 2014 qualifying the first team for a place in the following season’s competition – then dubbed the Petrofac Training Cup – at a time when it was still contested exclusively by Scottish lower league clubs.

After seeing off Annan Athletic 3-1 at Tynecastle in what was the first competitive appearance for many of Robbie Neilson’s new signings that season, Hearts faced a second round tie away to Livingston (led by former Hearts boss John McGlynn) on Wednesday 20th August 2014. By this stage, many Hearts fans had started to embrace the novelty value of the situation, seeing it as an opportunity to compete for a trophy that had barely figured on their radar until this season.

Sensing an altogether different opportunity, Neilson used the match as a way to give some of his younger players valuable game time, making no fewer than 10 changes to the team that won the previous weekend’s Edinburgh Derby. Although, technically-speaking, the game was an official first team fixture, Neilson’s starting line-up – showcasing squad numbers in the 20s and 30s – was every inch the kind of Colts side that would play in today’s iteration of the tournament, with several debutants and only a smattering of seniority to be found.

Given the dearth of experience in the side, the match ended in a resounding but not entirely unexpected 4-1 win for the hosts, prompting disgruntlement from some sections of the travelling support who felt Neilson had short-changed them by treating the game with triviality. In truth, many supporters saw the competition as exactly that – a trifling matter and a relative inconvenience in the more important journey towards promotion, one we would hopefully never have to experience again. Livingston, meanwhile, went on to win the trophy with a 4-0 win over Alloa Athletic.

Five years on, the game remains a minor footnote in an otherwise successful and enjoyable season. But what about the 14 players who were involved that night, the “Hearts Colts” ahead of their time? What became of them?

Lee Hollis

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One of five debutants in the starting line-up, the former Motherwell and Airdrie man was released in September 2014 after stepping in as short-term cover for Hearts’ bizarre goalkeeping crisis. Currently recovering from a dislocated knee with ex-Hibs player Paul Lovering’s Benburb Juniors.

Liam Smith

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An unused sub in the final game of the previous season against St Mirren, this was Smith’s maiden competitive outing for the first team, the first of only two this season before he was loaned to East Fife. Upon returning to Hearts, Smith went on to make 36 more appearances in maroon but found regular game time hard to come by and was subsequently loaned to St Mirren for the 2017-18 season, where he secured a Championship winner’s medal.

Smith’s time at Hearts came to an end when he signed for Ayr United in August 2018. He has since reunited with former boss Neilson at Dundee United.

Liam Gordon

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Also made his debut in this game, his first of only two competitive appearances for Hearts, the second coming as a first-half sub for Brad McKay in a League Cup win over Stenhousemuir. After a six-month loan spell with Arbroath, Gordon left Hearts to sign for boyhood club St Johnstone, where he still plays today.

Liam Henderson

His only competitive appearance for Hearts. Henderson would feature in a handful of pre-season friendly matches the following summer, but following loan spells with Preston Athletic and Stenhousemuir, was eventually released and signed for Falkirk in July 2016.

A brief loan to Cowdenbeath punctuated an otherwise unsuccessful spell with the Bairns, for whom Henderson made no competitive appearances. Despite signing for Edinburgh City in January 2018, Henderson left less than a month later to join Australian side Stirling Lions, where he spent six months before returning to City in August 2018.

Jordan McGhee

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One of the elder statesmen in this particular line-up despite having only just turned 18, this was McGhee’s 24th outing for the first team. He would go on to play 72 times for Hearts, often at full back due to the presence of more senior players in his preferred centre back berth.

Having grown impatient with the reality of his situation and sensing his opportunities at Tynecastle would be limited, McGhee moved to Middlesbrough on loan to play for their U23 side, hoping to convince them he would be worthy of a permanent move. Circumstances did not materialise as such and after what appeared to be a brief reprieve during the 2017-18 Betfred Cup group stages, McGhee found himself out of the team once Ian Cathro was relieved of his duties.

A deadline day move to Falkirk followed, bringing an end to his ten years at Tynecastle. McGhee would later be appointed Falkirk captain in January 2019 but was ultimately unable to prevent the team’s relegation to League One before moving to Dundee ahead of the 2019-20 season.

Brad McKay

Captain for the night, this was the 36th appearance of McKay’s Hearts career and his first start of the season. Despite having played regularly the season before, McKay found game time limited in this campaign with Danny Wilson, Alim Ozturk and even Jordan McGhee ahead of him in the pecking order. As a result, he played only 12 more times for Hearts after this.

Having signed a pre-contract agreement with St Johnstone in February 2015, McKay scored his only goal for the club in his final appearance – a match-winning penalty in the 93rd minute away to Cowdenbeath on the penultimate day of the Championship season.

McKay would make a swift return to Tynecastle – one he’ll have been keen to forget – on the opening day of the following season when his slip allowed Juanma Delgado to open the scoring in a 4-3 victory for the home side. His opportunities in Perth would be as limited as they were in Edinburgh and, after spending some time on loan with Dunfermline Athletic, McKay was told he could leave in August 2016 (though not before scoring in Saints’ 3-2 League Cup win over his former employers).

Moved from Perth to Inverness, where he remains today.

James Keatings

Having only made his debut three days before in the Edinburgh Derby – albeit a late five-minute cameo off the bench – this was Keatings’ first competitive start as a Hearts player. He would make a further 31 appearances in maroon during the Championship campaign, playing a particularly vital role in the winter months with four goals in four games at a point when Hearts were short of attacking options. With 11 goals to his name at the end of the season, the former Hamilton man finished just one shy of the club’s top scorers, before leaving to pursue more regular first team football elsewhere.

His next move would take him across the city to rivals Hibs, for whom he made 70 appearances, scoring 20 times and picking up winner’s medals in the Championship and Scottish Cup into the bargain. As Hibs finally secured promotion, Keatings remained in the Championship to sign for Dundee United, where he played only 22 times during a particularly dark period in his personal life.

The 2018-19 season marked a return to his native North Lanarkshire and Keatings’ only taste of top flight football to date, though after struggling to hold down a regular place in a Hamilton side desperately battling to avoid the drop, Keatings made the move to Inverness ahead of the 2019-20 season.

Scott Robinson

Only 22 years old but with over 100 club appearances under his belt already, this was the first of just four starts Robinson made under Neilson, with the likes of Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben, Miguel Pallardo and Jason Holt all preferred ahead of him in the centre of the park. Hearts’ youngest ever player, having made his debut shortly after his 16th birthday, the diminutive midfielder struggled to fulfil his early potential in what felt like a very stop-start spell at the club.

Now embarking on his third season with Livingston after short stints with Kilmarnock, Dunfermline and East Fife.

Gary Oliver

Although he drew a blank on this occasion, Oliver went on to score his only two goals for Hearts in the two games that followed: away to Raith Rovers and Stenhousemuir in the Championship and League Cup respectively.

Another who showed early promise but never quite kicked on, Oliver was allowed to leave for Queen of the South in 2015, where he spent one season before joining Greenock Morton. After three years at Cappielow, Oliver returned to Dumfries for the 2019-20 season.

Angus Beith

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Hotly-tipped as one of the most exciting young talents in the Hearts Academy at the time, this would end up being the only start Beith made in a maroon jersey. After promising loan spells with Stirling Albion, Stenhousemuir and Stranraer, Beith went on to make two more appearances for Hearts, both coming as a sub in defeats to Celtic under Ian Cathro.

Ahead of the 2018-19 campaign, Beith signed for Inverness as part of a swap deal that saw Jake Mulraney head to Tynecastle. Sadly, at the age of only 23, he was forced to retire earlier this year due to a hip injury, having not made a single appearance for the Highland outfit.

A benefit game between Hearts and Inverness was subsequently held on his behalf. Now working with Hearts in a coaching capacity.

David Smith

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One of the chief beneficiaries of Hearts’ threadbare squad during the administration season, Smith was a likeable, hard-working but ultimately limited player who was one of the first to drop down the pecking order as soon as the club’s transfer embargo was lifted and reinforcements arrived. As such, he made only one more appearance after this game and signed for Falkirk before the summer transfer window closed.

Currently with Stranraer, where he has played since 2018 following two years at Dumbarton.

Subs

Robbie Buchanan

A second half replacement for Gary Oliver on the night, this was the first of five appearances Buchanan made for Hearts during the Championship season. Spent the remainder of his Hearts career on loan at Cowdenbeath and Brechin City before eventually joining the former on a permanent basis.

Part of the Cowdenbeath side that lost to Hearts Colts in this very competition last week.

Alistair Roy

Another teenage debutant, brought on in place of Liam Gordon on the night, this was the first of Roy’s two competitive outings for Hearts, the second of which came a few days later away to Raith. Following loan moves to East Stirlingshire, Stenhousemuir, Dumbarton and Sligo Rovers, Roy left for Derry City in 2018 and is currently plying his trade with Airdrieonians.

Sean McKirdy

The youngest player involved on the night at only 16 years old, McKirdy replaced Angus Beith to make his debut with only five minutes remaining. Received his first top flight start the following year in a 2-0 defeat away to Inverness, which doubled up as his final appearance for the club.

Since leaving Hearts for a short-lived spell with Hamilton, McKirdy has become somewhat of a Lowland League journeyman, working his way to Barry Ferguson’s Kelty Hearts side via Selkirk and Gala Fairydean.

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