Hearts edged a six-goal thriller thanks in no small part to super sub Aaron McEneff to storm into the Scottish Cup semi final on a pulsating evening in Gorgie.
McEneff scored within seconds of leaving the bench midway through the second half to fire the Jambos back ahead after they’d blown a two-goal lead.
He then turned provider for Ellis Simms to settle the tie after Beni Baningime – with his first career goal – and Peter Haring had shot them into an early two-goal lead.
An outrageous ding-dong cup tie under the Tynecastle lights saw the Jambos blaze into a commanding position before being pegged back by the spirited St Mirren for whom Connor Ronan struck an incredible second half equalizer.
But McEneff netted with his first touch to turn the tide back in Hearts’ favor before laying the fourth on a plate for for Simms as Hearts become the first side to book a semi final spot.
Jak Alnwick was back between the sticks for Saints and had to look sharp after seven minutes to parry a fizzing Barrie McKay strike.
Hearts were playing the neater stuff early on and the ever impressive McKay was at the heart of most of it. A clever reverse pass to Ben Woodburn resulted in Liam Boyce’s low cross being hacked clear by Charles Dunne.
But in 16 minutes the Jambos forged ahead.
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McKay again was the creator with a low cross slung in from the left causing all sorts of bother. Simms got a toe to it, Alnwick could only block his effort and Baningime followed in to slam home from a couple of yards.
The visitors were causing Hearts problems down the flanks though as they looked for a quick response. They had a penalty shout when Andy Halliday caught Greg Kiltie after he’d fired over the bar but ref Bobby Madden waved play on.
And moments later Hearts doubled their advantage from another surprise source when Haring finished off a sweeping move.
Simms fed Liam Boyce whose ball out to Ben Woodburn was perfect for the Liverpool loanee to cushion a first time cross into the box for Haring to slam home.
The Friends weren’t for lying down and within five minutes had pulled themselves right back from the dead.
Halliday was outmuscled at Alnwick’s long clearance allowing Richard Tait to burst down the right and his cross into the danger area was brilliantly glanced home by Brophy’s toe across Craig Gordon and high into the far corner.
Moments later Brophy forced a diving save from Gordon when he got his head to a Jones free kick.
It was frantic stuff and Craig Halkett almost took the goals out the ground when he thumped the underside of the bar from a Halliday corner.
The pace never relented after the break either. Atkinson stung the palms of Alnwick before Woodburn had a drive deflected wide.
At the other end Gordon had to look lively to block a Jones effort after the rapid winger got in behind Atkinson from a huge Alnwick diagonal and the keeper was again up to the task when he dived to touch a Kiltie header round the post.
But the moment the large traveling contingent were waiting for arrived in the 62nd minute as Ronan unleashed an incredible effort from 35 yards that left Gordon rooted.
Hearts only half-cleared a Jones corner but there looked to be little danger when it fell to the Irishman wide on the right. That was until he let fly with an outrageous effort.
Neilson responded by throwing on McEneff for the ineffective Woodburn.
And incredibly within a minute the sub had restored the Jambos’ lead with only his second touch. Atkinson did the legwork down the right and his cross was only half-cleared allowing the Irish midfielder to divert into the net with his knee.
It was utterly breathless stuff.
Alnwick produced a superb diving save to touch a Stephen Kinglsey free kick round the post as Hearts looked for a clincher.
But Simms put the sensational tie to bed in the 85th minute when he tapped home McEneff’s cross.
3 talking points
What an absolute stoater of a cup tie. BBC struck the jackpot with this Tynecastle tear-up under the lights which proved to be utterly absorbing from the moment Baningime opened the scoring in the 16th minute. On the balance of play Hearts probably deserved to progress rattling in an impressive 20 shots over the 90 minutes. But the spirit of Stephen Robinson’s Saints should not be underplayed as they battled bravely to get even and but for a couple of Craig Gordon saves could have been in front before Aaron McEneff took over. Six goals, three of which were crackers, and no end of entertainment made for a memorable evening.
What an impact from Aaron McEneff. Kept in cold storage for large parts of the season McEneff produced a perfect sub’s display with a decisive goal and assist to turn the game in the Jambos’ favour. With only one start since Boxing Day he must now be seriously knocking on the door for inclusion against Livingston next week. Are the stars aligning for Heats? A decade ago when they last won this competition they dumped St Mirren in the quarter final – having beaten Auchinleck two rounds earlier just like this time. Robbie Neilson ‘s men are now two victories from lifting the silverware for a ninth time.
The Jambos were missing John Souttar, Cammy Devlin and Gary Mackay-Steven after last week’s bruising draw at Dundee United but they started – and finished fast – and must fancy themselves to go all the way. With Barrie McKay, Liam Boyce and Ellis Simms hitting top gear at the top end of the park and Craig Gordon and Craig Halkett shorig things up at the back, Neilson’s men will fancy themselves against anybody in a one-off.
Stephen Robinson was at pains to point out his side were underdogs going into this one. “All the pressure is off us” he claimed, referencing chapter one of the football mind games almanac. It almost worked as they fought back from two down and could have gone ahead. They scored arguably the two best goals of the evening and the Robinsons was adamant they should have had a spot kick in the first half. In the end there was to be no repeat of their double trip to Hampden last season. But they made a right fist of this.
Eamonn Brophy was a constant menace to the Jambos’ rearguard while Jordan Jones and Greg Kiltie were always a threat. But once again it was Connor Ronan who stole the show from a Paisley perspective with as good a strike as you will see all season.