DUNDEE United gave themselves a glimmer of hope and rammed recent criticism down detractors’ throats.
Their chairman Stephen Thompson had scolded the players in the wake of their midweek defeat to Motherwell. Describing their performance as abysmal, and he reminded them that they only had 13 games left to safeguard their Premiership status and repair the damage that this campaign has caused to their professional reputations.
Their reputations took a further tanking when veteran John Rankin revealed that too many players had downed tools. It underlined the issues which have dragged the club into the relegation quicksand and will have done little to buoy the dispirited fans who had seen their team win just two league games since Mixu Paatelainen took over in October and a paltry six times in the past 12 months, prompting them to unfurl a banner stating: ‘Enough is enough. Thompson out.’
The mood had shifted slightly by the time the final whistle sounded, with Paatelainen lauding his players’ response. “I think the boys showed that there are quite a few strong characters in that dressing room. There has been a lot of criticism and rightly so, some of it we can’t disagree with. Nevertheless, it’s never nice and the way the boys bounced back was excellent.”
Paatelainen’s men are still 11 points adrift at the foot, albeit with a game in hand, but they have been offered some encouragement and the players did make a show of caring enough about collecting all three points in this one.
At it from the opening minutes, they looked the most likely to break the deadlock. But having forced two spectacular saves from Hearts keeper Neil Alexander in the first half an hour, both from Edward Ofere, and then been denied by the willingness of the keeper to dart off his line to get out and clear as Florent Sinama-Pongolle threatened to punish Jamie Walker for a weak passback, United took a deserved lead two minutes from the interval.
By that stage Jordan McGhee, who had been drafted in at right-back after Callum Paterson failed to overcome a hamstring strain, had been sent off for his second yellow card in the space of a few minutes, and, down to ten men, Hearts boss Robbie Neilson had had only just sacrificed young Dario Zanatta, sending on John Souttar to bolster the backline.
But when Scott Fraser’s corner was played in, Guy Demel glanced a near-post header into the net.
“It was a difficult day again for us,” said Neilson. “We expected to come up here and take three points and we didn’t. We went down to ten men and dominated the game. Yes, we got beat with a wonder goal at the end but the decision with McGhee totally changed the game. I’ve seen it again. There are things that referees look at – is it reckless, is it endangering, is it at pace, is it studs up? It was none of it and he plays the ball.”
But even before the red card, the quality of Hearts’ play was well below the high standards they have proved themselves capable of as they have played themselves into contention for a European place, a world away from the dogfight further down the Premiership table. And it was not the response the travelling support had been expecting after their midweek exit from the Scottish Cup at the hands of capital rivals Hibs.
Comfortable in third place for now, this was the chance for Hearts to eat into the 11-point advantage enjoyed by second-placed Aberdeen. But it was a performance lacking pace and guile and as a consequence they left Tannadice with nothing but another suspension and their first league loss since December.
Jamie Walker had pulled one back three minutes after the break but, while his strike was top drawer, it did not give Hearts the impetus to go on and win. They had more of the play but did not pose enough danger.
Ryan Dow had almost re-established United’s lead in the 68th minute but his long-range effort over Alexander bounced just in front of goal and over the bar.
Then the visitors had the chance to nick it. Abiola Dauda charged into the box and drew the defence but instead of squaring it to the unmarked Sam Nicholson he went for glory and failed to find the net. At the other end, Paul Paton then launched a 30-yard strike into the roof of the net to seal only a fourth win of the season for United that even Henri Anier’s late sending-off could not tarnish.