Cowdenbeath 0-1 Hearts: The Bayview bewitchment remains as Jambos make hard work of Methil
What is it about Hearts and Bayview?
This is the third time in three years they have ventured to the small town of Methil, tucked away in Fife, in the Betfred Cup - and it's the third time they have toiled.
In the 2018, they were here to face Raith Rovers, and while they prevailed on penalties after a 1-1 draw, the performance wasn't up to scratch. Last year it was East Fife - the team one ought to be playing here - who caused the Jambos consternation, with the Fifers winning on spot-kicks after another 1-1 stalemate and piling pressure on then-manager Craig Levein. This time it was Robbie Neilson in the visitors' dugout with Cowdenbeath, from League 2, afforded 'home' team status.
It appears that it doesn't seem to matter who the opponents are: Hearts and Locality Hub Bayview Stadium, to give this spartan stadium its Sunday name, just don't seem to get along.
At least, on this occasion, Hearts recorded a clean victory. It took 78 spirit-sapping minutes for Craig Halkett to break the deadlock, but when you are not playing well - and make no mistake, Hearts did not play well here - the most important thing is finding a way to win come what way. They even missed a penalty in stoppage time when Jamie Walker failed from 12 yards. The record books will say Cowdenbeath 0 Hearts 1, and that should be the end of it.
We were only here rather than 30 minutes closer to Edinburgh due to Cowdenbeath's home, Central Park, rendered out of action after last weekend's heavy rain flooded the place. Gary Bollan's men would've been forgiven for expecting a deluge of attacks from their more illustrious and better-resourced opponents, but from early on, the heavy favourites for the Championship made heavy weather of this encounter.
Neilson decided to make a couple of changes to the starting XI that defeated Inverness at Tynecastle on Tuesday night in their opening match of Group A. The big surprise was the inclusion of young midfielder Scott McGill, who came in for Andy Irving - summoned into the Scotland Under-21 squad - while Jordan Roberts was promoted into the starting XI at the expense of Craig Wighton. Steven Naismith led the line in the now very familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, with Walker playing behind in the No.10 role.
A small crowd was here to witness events. Bayview's walls are not high enough to stop creative supporters finding a vantage point, whether it was two curious youngsters peering over them or the half-dozen who stood on a verge at the sea-end of this ice-cold 'arena' to watch it. Thank goodness they weren't asked to pay, because the fare on show wasn't much cop.
Cowdenbeath had lined up in 4-5-1, clearly expecting the worst, and although goalkeeper Ross Sinclair fumbled a cross under pressure from Naismith early on, it was they who had the biggest piece of action in the opening ten minutes. A free-kick into the Hearts box caused confusion and Craig Barr went down looking for a penalty. There appeared some contact on the Cowdenbeath captain, and the ex-Livingston man was adamant it was a foul. Referee Alan Newlands was unmoved.
Hearts struggled to exert any superiority over their Fife foes in the opening 20 minutes and it came as no surprise that Neilson changed the team's shape. He went more aggressive in a 4-2-4 formation with Walker out wide and Naismith and Josh Ginnelly as the front two. Hearts gained a smidgen of impetus from this, with Walker scooping the ball just over the bar from a Halkett knock-down and then Ginnelly wasting an opportunity.
Newlands' half-time whistle ended a dreary half for Hearts, by far the worst since they resumed football, with a substantial lack of quality hampering their endeavours. Conversely, Cowdenbeath were applauded off the pitch by their coaching and back-room staff for a committed performance.
Hearts reappeared without Naismith, who looked uncomfortable on the stodgy artificial surface, with Wighton replacing him. Albeit from a low base, Hearts started to improve. They were more incisive with their passing, with Walker curling an effort wide and Roberts hammering a volley just wide of Sinclair's post.
The young McGill ceded his place as the match wore on. While he did little of consequence, he did little wrong either, a tidy debut for one so young and inexperienced. Olly Lee, stationed next to him, had a difficult afternoon as nothing came off for him. Once Peter Haring, who replaced him later in the game, comes back to full fitness, his position will come under even more scrutiny.
Cowdenbeath had thrown so much energy into this match, so it was inevitable that they tired. It was clear this would finish 0-0 or be a Hearts win as we entered the final 20 minutes. The latter outcome became huge odds-on just 12 minutes from time when substitute Elliott Frear sent over a corner for Halkett to power home. Amid the turgid nature of Hearts' play, it was ironic that such a simple goal clinched it.
The Blue Brazil barely threatened in search of an equaliser, but Hearts had the chance to put some serious gloss on the scoreline right at the death when Roberts went down and earned a penalty. Alas, Sinclair guessed correctly and saved well from Walker. 2-0 would've been harsh on Cowdenbeath.
Two wins out of two for Hearts - both 1-0 - in this competition means that qualification for the last 16 can all but be secured on Tuesday night at home to Raith Rovers. Neilson will be expecting a better performance. Beating Rovers would be advisable, too, because as the football gods have decreed, Hearts are due back at Bayview next month when they conclude the group against East Fife. The men in maroon can take nothing for granted in Methil.