THERE was a moment when Jamie Hamill struggled to get the ball out from under his own feet and get his shot away. When he did it cannoned back off the arm of a Motherwell player.
The home players screamed for a penalty but the referee gave the defence the benefit of the doubt.
It was at that moment that it seemed certain that this would be another Tynecastle hard-luck story. At the time when they needed a bit of good fortune the most, it has deserted them. To be fair to the stricken Hearts players, though, that incident came in the 89th minute and until that moment few in the ground would have written off an equaliser.
But while they charged forward again in time added on, Billy King and Jamie Hamill combining to zing a delivery across goal, there was an almost fatalistic premonition that the final touch would be missing.
Afterwards, it was a familiar refrain, with manager Gary Locke lamenting the absence of some luck and praising the effort from his young side. His opposite number Stuart McCall joined in that particular chorus, having seen his side forced to work harder than many would have predicted to get the three points. But plaudits alone won’t help Hearts close the gap on the teams above them. Having gone ten games without a win, that gulf is now a massive 20 points and with other teams permitted the luxury of being able to strengthen their squads this month, Hearts are desperate to see their signing embargo relaxed. The administrators will raise the topic once again at Hampden tomorrow but even Locke is all-but resigned to the reality that the rules don’t allow for any leniency even if other clubs were willing.
But their plight is becoming ridiculous. Kevin McHattie came off yesterday with a hamstring problem, while Jamie Walker hopped through the final minutes, with the initial analysis suggesting a broken metatarsal. Add to that the possibility of Adam King heading to Swansea and it’s no wonder they are struggling for numbers.
“We’re finding it hard,” said Locke afterwards. “But we’re in this situation because of the way this place has been run. I’m not expecting anything to change. We’re trying to develop some of the best young players in Scotland and all we’re asking for is a wee help.”
Dale Carrick, 20, making his first start, said that they had even enlisted the help of some school kids during the holidays to ensure they had enough numbers to work in training.
But while numbers may be lacking, the spirit is not. Once again, Hearts performed well above what could be expected of a side in their situation against a team tussling for second place. The only goal of the game came in the 40th minute from the boot of former player John Sutton. It was a lovely finish but it wasn’t enough to quash the determination in the Hearts ranks.
Carrick admitted that things have got so bleak that the players who are still able to take to the field are doing so encumbered with less pressure. With nothing to lose, they certainly had a right go in the second half of this match.
Motherwell had enjoyed the best of the first half, the pace and running of Lionel Ainsworth, who has extended his loan deal from Rotherham, creating several openings as did the forward play of Iain Vigurs, James McFadden and Sutton. But while all had efforts on goal, they couldn’t penetrate a stubborn defence or beat Jamie MacDonald. Not until the 40th minute, anyway. That was when Sutton waited for MacDonald to commit himself before rounding him and dispatching his shot into the net from what looked like an almost impossibly tight angle to give his side their fifth away win on the bounce and keep the pressure on Aberdeen in the fight for second place.
Given the teams’ respective form, McCall’s team could have been expected to add to that tally but while they did create history, securing a sixth successive top-flight win for the first time in 77 years, it wasn’t a comfortable second half.
They had a couple of breaks with Ainsworth, Vigurs and Anier all having chances but it was Hearts on the front foot. Ryan Stevenson, David Smith, Jamie Walker, Hamill and Calum Paterson all did their best but Gunnar Nielsen denied the first two, while the latter was convinced he should have got a penalty when he appealed for a handball when his headed effort was blocked.
Locke didn’t make a big issue of those moments, while McCall maintained there was nothing in them. It could have left Hearts feeling sorry for themselves but roared on a by a crowd who sensed that they could get something from the game, they kept at it. Even into stoppage time, even when most inside the ground had accepted that, once again, it just wasn’t going to be their day.
Hearts: MacDonald, McGhee, McHattie (Walker, 54), Hamill, McKay, McGowan, Carrick (Nicholson, 73), Robinson, Paterson, Smith (B King, 80).
Subs not used: Hamilton, Tapping, A King, Oliver.
Motherwell: Nielsen, Ramsden, Hammell, Carswell, Hutchinson, McManus, Ainsworth (Francis-Angol, 74), Lasley, Sutton, McFadden (Anier, 74), Vigurs (Lawson, 84).
Subs not used: Stewart, McHugh, Moore, Murray.
Goals: J Sutton, 40.
Booked: S Hammell.
Referee: W Collum
Attendance: 12, 888