DUNFERMLINE Athletic’s tenure in the SPL seems to be heading towards its inexorable end following this defeat which leaves them six points behind Hibs who play today.
Despite manager Jim Jefferies fighting talk afterwards – “there’s still 15 points to play for” – it is really hard to see Dunfermline making up the ground at the bottom. The First Division beckons, unless Rangers’ situation goes completely downhill.
This was an occasion replete with football meaning, as it was Jim Jefferies’ first match against the club he has served so memorably and which parted company with his services in dubious fashion last year. Though he is full of fighting talk, Jefferies surely knows the task of surviving is beyond his new club, and he may well look back to this beating from his old club as the day he realised Athletic were doomed.
To be fair, Dunfermline have had appalling luck with injuries, and Kevin Rutkiewicz was still out along with Paul Burns, while Liam Buchanan returned only to the bench. For Hearts, Gary Glen was given a rare chance to lead the line, Craig Beattie and Stephen Elliott having failed to recover from injuries, as had Andy Webster.
The less said about the first half, the better. It was full of errors, including basic stuff such as professionals failing to control the ball on their first touch. Imagination, guile, skill – forget it.
Dunfermline were certainly the better side, but that’s not saying much. They created few clear cut chances, and failed to take those that they did.
Andy Kirk was the worst offender, heading a delicious 20th minute Austin McCann cross tamely over the bar, albeit he was under pressure.
Dunfermline clearly need giant slices of luck if they are to survive, and they nearly got one after 20 minutes, David Graham’s shot from 25 yards deflecting off Darren Barr and going wide of the post while Jamie MacDonald was stranded.
A head flick by Paul Willis then sent Kirk clear on the right and he was unlucky to see his volley from distance dip just over the visitors’ bar. That was Dunfermline’s best effort of the half
Ian Black was toiling manfully in midfield as always, but his reputation goes before him and he earned his 12th yellow card of the season when piling through Kyle Hutton. Referee Stephen Finnie obviously enjoyed flashing his card, as he promptly showed it twice in succession for fouls that were hardly criminal, Ryan McGowan and Mark Kerr having their names taken.
Right at the end of the half, Hearts almost scored when McCann’s header back to his goalkeeper fell dreadfully short, allowing Glen to nick in and poke the ball past Smith. Keddie was alive to the danger and got back to clear.
The second half opened in much brighter fashion, Hearts having decided to wake up and push into attack, with their lines a clear ten yards in advance of where they had been in the first half.
Skacel had been anonymous in the first period but within two minutes of the restart, Jamie Hammill and Glen made a chance for him in the Dunfermline box and only a terrific reaction save with his feet by Smith saved the home side from going behind.
It was only delaying the pain, however, as the first goal came in the 49th minute. Daniel Grainger’s cross seemed harmless as Dunfermline had numbers back and plenty time to deal with it, but inexplicably, the defenders failed to clear and the ball bounced to Glen at the back post who drove low across Smith’s goal and in at the far post.
Actually, it wasn’t inexplicable. At home, Dunfermline’s confidence goes for a burton and they seem unable to gee themselves up to concentrate for 90 minutes. Indeed, it was another lapse in concentration which cost them a second goal three minutes later. Ryan McGowan was in the front line and headed goalwards only to see the ball rebound to Alex Keddie who said afterwards he had ‘scored’ the goal, though Darren Barr claimed it.
It could have been three soon after, but Smith was equal to Glen’s low shot, getting down well to smother.
After an hour or so, Jefferies decided he had seen enough underachievement and sent on Joe Cardle and Steve McDougall for Kirk and Kerr.
Cardle’s arrival sparked up the home side, as it usually does, and slowly but surely Dunfermline worked their way into the game. He took a corner on the right and regathered the ball before attempting a Messi-type spin which came off sufficiently for him to gain the ball on the angle. His shot was turned in to his own net by the hapless Marius Zaliukas.
Dunfermline tried to snatch a late equaliser but in truth they were short of a cutting edge up front and Hearts kept them at bay.