THERE has been so much said, so much written, about the impact made by young Ryan Gauld that it would be easy to assume that the Dundee United kid walks on water or, at the very least, wins games single-handedly.
Dundee Utd 4 (Armstrong 16, Graham 49, Mackay-Steven 85, Rankin 90) Hearts 1 (Hamill pen, 20)
He is an undoubted talent but on Saturday it was the chance for others to take the spotlight as United overtook Motherwell to go third in the Scottish Premiership table.
While the likes of Gauld, Stuart Armstrong and Andy Robertson have impressed, attracting more than a dozen scouts to yesterday’s match, Brian Graham is one of those who has had to bide his time. But having been granted a run of matches by manager Jackie McNamara, he is making them count, with four goals in three games.
He admitted he knew very little about his opener and was not even sure if he was entitled to add it to his tally, but having allowed Hearts to peg them back, his second at the start of the second half was far more decisive.
“Stuart [Armstrong] has been claiming [the first goal] but I don’t know if the defender plays it off me and it goes in the goal. I’m happy with that, if I’m given the goal.”
It was Gary Mackay Steven who created the opening goal, flicking a neat pass over the defence for Armstrong. His angled shot was heading goalwards but Hearts defender Kevin McHattie tried to intervene and only succeeded in sending it over the line off Graham. “I’m delighted but to be honest it must have come off me when the defender put me up in the air and I ended up in the goal,” said the former Raith Rovers man.
There was no disputing his second three minutes into the second half as he rose unchallenged to head home a Mark Wilson corner. It left the visiting contingent furious as they claimed his marker, Callum Paterson, had been fouled but neither the officials nor Graham were convinced.
In the lead up to this match, Dundee United had been in free-scoring form, netting 13 times in their last three games, while Hearts had lost more than half that tally in just one game.
The question was whether Gary Locke’s squad had the mettle and the gumption to be able to bounce back immediately from the 7-0 mauling by Celtic last Sunday. Having conceded the opener, they showed they still have battling capabilities, coming back at United within three minutes. Jamie Walker, who was a nuisance down the left flank, once again threatened to burst past Mark Wilson. The defender stuck out a leg and the referee immediately pointed to the penalty spot. Jamie Hamill calmly converted.
But having regained the lead again so soon into the second half thanks to Graham, United had the luxury of waiting for Hearts to over-commit players in attack as the visitors sought the goal that would give them a share of the points.
It was the kind of patience
McNamara had warned his players would be necessary against a Hearts team desperate for points and for a modicum of salvation in light of last weekend’s rout.
“I thought first half we applied ourselves and there was nothing in the game but then a big decision goes against us for their second goal,” said Hearts manager Locke. “Callum felt it was a foul and certainly from where I was it looked like a foul and the boy gets a free header. Then to make matters worse we go back up the other end, Jamie Walker gets brought down again on the edge of the box and he gets booked for diving when it was clearly a foul.
“I think we were well organised and we battled well and we always looked dangerous when we were going forward but we were up against a really good side. We contained them well until late in the game, when we changed it trying to get the equaliser and we left ourselves a wee bit exposed.”
Having twice been caught four on two, Hearts managed to keep themselves in with a chance of levelling things, right up until the 85th minute when Gauld played the ball to Mackay Steven to finish high into MacDonald’s goal.
Then in the 90th minute, MacDonald pulled off a magnificent save from Armstrong before fortune again laughed at the downtrodden capital club, as a deflection sent John Rankin’s screamer past the unlucky keeper.
It was a result that delighted McNamara, who accepted his side had not been at their best but had still won. For Locke, though, it was another tough scoreline to swallow. “I know it’s 4-1 and it looks like we have had another hammering but that certainly wasn’t the case. Late in the game we had to go for it.”
They did but against a side that can’t stop scoring, they paid the price and, with Kilmarnock winning yesterday at Ross County, Hearts are now 14 points adrift at the foot of the table.
Dundee Utd: Cierzniak, Wilson (Watson 89), Dillon, Souttar, Robertson (Gomis 90), Paton, Rankin, Gauld, Armstrong, Mackay-Steven, Graham (Goodwillie 86). Subs not used: Butcher, Erskine, Down, McCallum.
Booked: Wilson, Souttar.
Hearts: Macdonald, Hamill, Wilson, McGowan, McHattie, Stevenson (Carrick 75), Walker, Tapping (B King 67), McGhee, Robinson, Paterson. Subs not used: McKay, Smith, Hamilton, A King, Nicholson.
Booked: Walker, Tapping, Robinson
Ref: C Thomson