HEART of Midlothian edged out holders Hamilton Academical and hosts Oban Saints to win this year's D&K Lafferty Challenge Cup tournament after an entertaining day's football at Mossfield Sports Complex last Saturday
Saints kicked off proceedings at Mossfield (pitch 1) against a St Johnstone development team and fell behind to a Connor McLaren strike in the seventh minute when the St Johnstone striker capitalised on some slack defensive work by Saints.
Donald Campbell brought Saints level in the tenth minute with a crisp strike from the edge of the box after a good run and cross on the right wing from Lewis Cameron.
The Perth Saints struck in the third minute of the second half when George Hunter punished another mix-up in the Saints rearguard. Saints battled well for the remaining twelve minutes but failed to break down a determined and well organised St Johnstone side containing a number of players about to go out on loan to clubs in Leagues 1 and 2 of the Scottish Professional Football League.
Over on Glencruitten 1 (pitch 2) holders Hamilton Academical got their defence of the trophy off to a shaky start falling behind in the first half to a Jordan Muir goal for Dundee United's development team. Accies recovered in the second half and earned a draw thanks to a late Steven Boyd strike.
Dundee United remained on pitch 2 where they and hosts Oban Saints served up an entertaining and evenly matched contest with the only goal of the match coming from United's eye catching Justin Johnson.
The pacy winger eagerly pounced on a moment of hesitation from Paul Kerr to race in on the Saints goal. With Saints Daniel Cassells advancing to narrow the angle the United wide man skilfully lobbed the big keeper to give United the three points.
Back on pitch 1 Alloa Athletic and Heart of Midlothian opened their respective accounts with last season's SAFL Championship winners proving too strong for a very youthful Wasps development team. Player of the tournament Jordan McGhee opened the scoring slotting home from 12 yards after a short corner routine on the left. McGhee had a hand in Hearts’ second, from another corner on the left the big defender was quickest to react to a near post flick on to stab the ball goalwards from where striker Gary Oliver was able to force the ball over the line from close range.Hearts third and final goal was also scored by Gary Oliver with a neat left foot finish over the advancing Wasps keeper after cutting in from the left.
The punishment for the Alloa youngsters continued on pitch 1 where SPFL Premiership side Hamilton Academical recorded the biggest win of the day in an emphatic 4 - 0 romp. On the score sheet for Accies were Jesus Garcia Tena, Chris Turner and that man of many clubs Trialist.
On pitch 2 the St Johnstone coaching staff got a good look at what their first team will face on the opening day of the SPFL Premiership season when the Perth Saints development team took on the might of the Hearts first team. Jaunma Delgado opened the scoring for the Jam Tarts racing through the middle to tuck a neat left foot finish past the keeper from eight yards out. For their second goal Hearts pressurised the young St Johnstone defence into a mistake as they attempted to play their way out of defence. Gary Oliver's shot from the edge of the D was charged down on the penalty spot but the rebound fell kindly for the Hearts striker allowing him to slot the ball easily past the wrong footed keeper.
St Johnstone notched a consolation goal thanks to a mistake by Hearts keeper Neil Alexander. The Scotland international keeper misjudged the flight of a throw in from full back Callum Paterson allowing the ball to bounce up and over his head. Despite the keeper getting a slight touch on the ball with his head he couldn't prevent St Johnstone striker George Hunter from slotting the ball into the empty net to make the final score 2 - 1 to Hearts.
After sitting out the last round of games Saints returned to action on pitch 1 against Hamilton Academical where the hosts shocked the holders by securing the three points.
Even more unexpected than the scoreline was the identity of the goalscorer! Predominantly right sided defender Jamie Graham, deputising at left back for injured brother Dougal, fired in a right foot cross come shot from from the left wing which completely deceived Darren Hill in the Accies goal and nestled in the bottom corner of the net much to the delight of the home support.
Saints fully deserved their half time lead but were made to battle all the way in the second half as the full timers set about levelling the score. A sustained onslaught from Accies found the Saints defence a tough nut to crack and keeper Thomas McCulloch in no mood to be beaten. The big Saints keeper pulled off three tremendous saves to keep Saints first clean sheet of the day and notch up their first three points.
On pitch 2 Alloa Athletic recovered from their baptism of fire against Hearts and Accies to steady the ship slightly in a Development League battle against St Johnstone. In a much closer contest the Perth Saints edged out the young Wasps 1 - 0.
Dundee United and Hearts returned to action on pitch 1 with the Jam Tarts Premiership side surprisingly dropping points to the Arabs Development League team. Hearts opened the scoring in the first half from a Callum Paterson twenty five yard piledriver into the top left hand corner of the net. United levelled in the second half successful pressurising the Hearts defence into a mistake as they attempted to play their way out from the back. A slack back pass was pounced upon by United striker Jordan Muir who slotted the ball home past the despairing dive of the Hearts keeper to make the final score 1 - 1.
On pitch 2 a goal in each half from Darian McKinnon and Daniel Armstrong gave Hamilton Academical all three points against St Johnstone whose Development League side continued to give a good account of themselves against their more experienced opponents.
On pitch 1 Dundee United edged out Alloa Athletic by two goals to nil in an all Development League tie of put the Arabs on the seven point mark.
Back on pitch 2 Saints Manager Alex Craik handed himself a starting place joining fellow Hearts fans Craig MacEwan and Dean Smith in facing their boyhood heroes. Saints had the first opportunity of the match in the fourth minute when a delightful pass from Donald Campbell picked out Lewis Cameron on the corner of the six yard box unfortunately Lewis, under pressure from a Hearts defender, was unable to get his shot on target sending it inches wide of the keeper's left hand post. Two minutes later a solo wonder goal from Hearts striker Sam Nicholson gave the Jambos the lead. Picking the ball up wide on the left in his own half Nicholson jinked his way past Donald Campbell and Jamie Graham on the half-way line before driving through the midfield straight at the heart of the Saints defence. With the Saints midfield trailing in his wake Nicholson unleashed an unstoppable twenty five strike which flew past Daniel Cassells right into the postage stamp corner.
Despite this setback Saints kept plugging away and came close again before half time. Myles McAuley made a typically powerful run through the Hearts midfield and fed Donald Campbell on the edge of the box. Donald's right foot shot was well held by Jack Hamilton in the Hearts goal.
Saints were back on level terms shortly after the restart, Donald Campbell rolled a free kick about thirty yards out and wide on the left into Lewis Cameron on the eighteen yard line. Lewis cut into the box but found his path to goal blocked by three Hearts defenders. Lewis retained possession and laid the ball off to Craig MacEwan on the left of the box who evaded one despairing Hearts lunge before being brought down inside the six yard box.
Referee Tim Woodcock was in no doubt about the Saints appeals and immediately pointed to the spot. Much to the surprise of the Saints faithful on the sidelines Dean Smith picked up the ball and placed it on the penalty spot. The Saints fans had no cause for alarm as the Hearts daft striker kept his cool and slammed his penalty kick high into the net giving Jack Hamilton no chance.
Hearts had a chance to restore their advantage from a long range free kick but the low effort went wide of the post with Daniel Cassells looking to have his angles spot on.
Saints took the lead in the twenty third minute when Craig MacEwan and Donald Campbell combined well on the Saints left for Craig to slip in Donald on the left of the box. Donald's right foot shot across the keeper was beaten out but only as far as Dean Smith twelve yards out who sent a crashing shot into the Hearts net off the underside of the crossbar.
Saints were well worthy of their lead and comfortably kept their professional counterparts at bay having one slight scare to endure when Soufian El Hassnaoui headed a corner kick goalwards only to see it thumped to safety by Paul Kerr standing on the goal line guarding the post.
Over on pitch 1 Dundee United and St Johnstone closed their accounts for the day with the Perth Saints edging out the Arabs by one goal to nil leaving St Johnstone on nine points their best ever points tally in eleven tournament appearances.
After recording an unexpected victory over Hearts Saints remained on pitch 2 for their final match against Alloa Athletic. The young Wasps offered little going forward and seemed content to sit in and wind the clock down on what had been a difficult day for them against some vastly more experienced opponents. On the other hand Saints could sense that a further three points were theirs for the taking if they could apply themselves properly.
Alloa had an early opportunity when Willie Gemmell misjudged an attempted header back to Daniel Cassells in the Saints goal allowing an Alloa attacker to nip in and head goalwards. The big keeper made a good stop and Willie redeemed himself by recovering to mop up the loose ball and clear the danger.
Saints took the lead in the eighth minute when a Lewis Cameron cross from the right picked out Donald Campbell in the box. Ten yards from goal Donald held off his marker to drill a shot into the bottom corner of the net past the keeper's left hand.
The Oban side upped the pressure in the second half and came agonising close to increasing their advantage on two occasions.
Four minutes after the restart Lewis Cameron turned the Wasps defence inside out before delivering a pin-point cross into the six yard box. Colin Carswell made a great run from right back but unfortunately couldn't force the ball over the line and the danger was cleared.
With two minutes remaining Saints had one last chance to score and once again Lewis Cameron was the Architect. Lewis swung over a testing in swinging corner kick from the Saints left which the Alloa keeper was unable to collect cleanly. The Wasps keeper dropped the ball at the feet of PJ Sinclair barely one yard out but the Saints man somehow managed to squeeze the ball wide of the post when it seemed easier to score.
The stage was then set for a winner takes all final match on pitch 1 between ante-post joint favourites Heart of Midlothian and Hamilton Academical.
However, after some head scratching and checking of goal differences, it became apparent that a draw in the final match would bring Saints and St Johnstone back into contention and hand an unlikely tournament victory to the hosts by one goal over St Johnstone.
Hearts took the lead in the sixth minute when Accies keeper Darren Hill failed to hold a Billy King shot from the edge of the box spilling the ball to Sam Nicholson for the Hearts striker to force home from eight yards.
The notorious Oban summer weather eventually delivered the anticipated heavy rain but it failed to dampen the spirits of the large crowd who remained enthralled to the end of the closest tournament finish for many years.
On the pitch the wet under foot conditions added to the drama with tackles sliding in left, right and centre. Accies pressed hard for an equaliser but found Neil Alexander in the Hearts goal to be in top form pulling off a terrific diving save in the twenty fourth minute to preserve the Hearts lead.
With Accies throwing everything into attack spaces began opening up for Hearts to exploit and in the twenty ninth minute Gavin Reilly had a glorious chance to seal victory but his run took him wide and his shot from an acute angle went wide of the target.
Accies piled on the pressure and won a corner deep in stoppage time from which Neil Alexander pulled off a tremendous point blank save to foil Accies and shatter the dreams of the Saints contingent watching anxiously from the sidelines.
Referee Gary Logan decided he had seen enough and blew for full time giving Hearts a record breaking fourth tournament victory and sending their far travelled supporters (and the Oban Jambos) home happy.
At the end of the final game tournament organiser David Buchanan thanked the teams for coming, Archie MacDougall for manning the gate, the Argyll and Bute groundstaff for preparing two excellent pitches and the nine match officials before inviting Kathleen Lafferty from club sponsors D&K Lafferty Contractors who handed over the handsome trophy and medals to the winning Hearts squad.