HEARTS rediscovered the way to goal and, in so doing, regained their footing in the SPL as they bounced back from a testing time on and off the pitch. It also gave them some welcome momentum as they head into their midweek League Cup encounter with Livingston.
The greater reliance on youth has been cited as a possible Achilles heel for the Gorgie side this term but, once again, 17-year-old Callum Paterson turned in a performance that ensured there is no way he could be considered a weak link.
The workrate and commitment of the entire team laid the foundations for their first win over Dundee United in Tayside for more than three years but it was the finishing ability of the teenager which sealed matters. That and an under-par display by the home side.
Proving he has settled in following his second positional change since he was elevated to the first team at the start of the season, Paterson now seems destined for a prolonged stint as striker. His first goal broke the deadlock and gave Hearts a lift in a match they had gone into as underdogs thanks to the fact they had drawn a blank in front of goal in their past three SPL outings and the statistics which showed they had won just one of the previous dozen head-to-heads with a team fancied by many to finish second in the league this term.
“Three points and a clean sheet and against a team like Dundee United – we can’t complain about that,” said defender Danny Grainger. “Now we just need to concentrate on Tuesday night.”
It makes a change from recent weeks, when Hearts have spent the hours and days after league matches pondering missed opportunities and dropped points. But, instead of looking back on what might have been, they left Tannadice on Saturday relaxed in the knowledge that they can concentrate on what lies ahead.
“We said after the St Mirren game that we had three big games which could help turn our poor start to the season around and take us into the quarter-final of the cup, and [after the win over United], if we can add another win, against Kilmarnock next weekend, then it obviously turns things around a little bit in the league as well,” said the delighted Grainger.
“I don’t think there was ever a doubt that we were going to score goals eventually. We have boys like Arvy [Novikovas], Callum, Andy Driver, boys like that, who can score goals and we have just been a bit unlucky with things being blocked and not falling to us in the right places. But we knew they were going to come and we had to stick together as a team and we have worked hard this week and got our rewards.
“I think we’ve played well in the last two games and created chances but I think this shows just how important the first goal is. It took the sting out the game and we have not been able to do that in the past few games.”
That goal came in the 29th minute when Ryan McGowan evaded Willo Flood’s attentions and got a cross in from the by-line. Scott Robinson hooked it into the area and, although Danny Grainger’s shot was blocked, it was only cleared as far as Paterson at the edge of the box and the kid drove a blistering shot beyond Radoslaw Cierzniak and into the net.
If that was a relief, the second, which arrived just two minutes later, allowed Hearts to really take control.
The opening exchanges had been fairly, even though United felt they had been denied a legitimate penalty when Willo Flood claimed he was floored by Ryan Stevenson, but all that became irrelevant as Hearts winger Arvydas Novikovas advanced unhindered and walloped a long-range effort which swerved in the air to fool Cierzniak.
“It was unbelievable,” said the bamboozled goalkeeper. “The ball seemed to be flying straight to me but then I don’t know. I need to see it again on television because I don’t know what happened. I think the ball turned very quick.”
United tried to peg things back before half-time but both Flood and Michael Gardyne were denied by the agility of Hearts ’keeper Jamie MacDonald, while it was the crossbar which halted the progress of Gavin Gunning’s header just two minutes into the second half.
But, in terms of teamwork, spirit and conviction, United were a poor second to the capital side. That was epitomised in the third goal. While Sean Dillon’s error was uncharacteristic, the fact that it was McGowan and Paterson up in the United box, pressurising Cierzniak as he tried to dash out to the short pass back, was not.
The right-back got in the challenge on the ’keeper and the young striker was on hand to seize on the loose ball and slot it into the net off the inside of the far post.
“Obviously, he has been working hard,” Grainger said, applauding Paterson’s part in the victory.
“He has made a step up from the youth team to the first team this season and he has been chopped about a bit, from right-back to right midfield and now up front. and it just shows how versatile he is.
“What he now goes and achieves in the game is up to him but he has gone down to Anfield and played really well, played in big games, the derby, and then to come to a place like Tannadice and score two goals is great for him. He hasn’t shown any fear, at any point and, as long as he keeps his feet on the ground and keeps listening to the boys round about him, because we are trying to help him, then there’s going to be no stopping him.”
For United, though, it was a day to lick wounds. They are struggling without the ingenuity of Gary Mackay-Steven and were out-hustled by a team with more spirit on Saturday, which will cause some concern as they head to Dumfries for their League Cup tie against Queen of the South, a team who have been responsible for some notable cup shocks already this season.
Cierzniak views the game as a chance for redemption and it therefore can’t come quickly enough. “I am very happy that we are playing on Tuesday,” he said. “After a game like this, I hate waiting all week for the next game, so I’m happy when I can play within the next two or three days and I know we will play better in the next game. My target is that we don’t lose goals in next game.”
They certainly won’t want to lose them so meekly.