HEARTS produced heroics on Sunday to deny Hibernian the pleasure of being the team to send them down. It would have come as no surprise – and no discredit to Gary Locke’s team either – had they been unable to replicate that achievement against opponents who are notably more formidable than their Edinburgh rivals.
Instead, they dug deep into their mental and physical reserves to claim the point that keeps their Premiership place at least until Saturday. And they did it in the toughest way possible, coming back from a man and a goal down after captain Danny Wilson had been sent off and Willo Flood scored from the resultant free-kick.
That could have been a devastating blow to the strength of Locke’s team, but instead they fought back and equalised through a Jamie Hamill penalty four minutes from time. The result was enough to take Aberdeen back into second place, and also meant that, finally, Partick Thistle cannot be automatically relegated.
But, far more importantly for the bulk of the crowd, it also meant that Hearts, who go to Firhill on Saturday, can still theoretically catch St Mirren.
There is no room for manoeuvre now. Eighteen points behind the Paisley team with six games to play, Hearts have to win all six while St Mirren lose theirs. That is not going to happen.
But the spirit Locke’s team have shown in keeping the fight going this long is nonetheless remarkable, and a testament to the manager’s powers of motivation as well as to the players’ own commitment to the cause. With Sunday’s goal hero Dale Carrick absent because of a dead leg, on-loan striker Paul McCallum came in as Hearts’ only change from the derby. Derek McInnes made two alterations to his side from their draw against Dundee United, introducing Andrew Considine and Peter Pawlett for Cammy Smith and Joe Shaughnessy.
Hearts began the game as assertively as they had left off against Hibs, and Sam Nicholson was unlucky to see a goalbound shot rebound off a team-mate’s legs after a corner by David Smith had been cleared to him at the edge of the box. Niall McGinn was first to show at the other end, but his swerving effort was clutched calmly by Jamie MacDonald.
Aberdeen steadily began to exert more pressure on Hearts, and an excellent diagonal pass from Ryan Jack sent Shaleum Logan free on the right wing. Logan’s cross looked promising, but it evaded everyone on its transit through the box and the danger was gone.
Midway through the half, Jack received the first yellow card of the night for a foul in David Smith inside the Hearts half. That was where virtually all the action was taking place by then, as Aberdeen pressed high on both flanks.
Even so, the next scoring chance arose from a Hearts error rather than anything created by the visitors. Under pressure from Peter Pawlett, Callum
Paterson put MacDonald in trouble with a short pass back. Adam Rooney nipped in before the goalkeeper could reach the ball, but MacDonald recovered to block his shot.
Hearts captain Danny Wilson was booked for a foul on Rooney as the match rose in tempo in the approach to half-time. From the resultant free-kick, McGinn shot wide after his initial attempt was blocked. A rare Hearts attack ended with Ryan Stevenson glancing a header wide of Jamie Langfield’s goal, and that was the end of the home team’s offensive efforts until the second half – unless, that is, you counted McCallum’s barge on Langfield just before the break which saw the ball end up in the ball in the Aberdeen net.
It was a futile gesture from the striker, as Langfield had collected the ball cleanly, and it surprised no-one in the ground when a foul was given.
McCallum was booked for his gratuitous foul, and failed to reappear for the second half, being replaced by midfielder Scott Robinson.
Stevenson took McCallum’s place up front, and the reshuffle produced a more positive performance in the opening minutes of the half as Robinson combined to good effect with Jason Holt.
After a first half in which they were fortunate not to go behind, Hearts looked as if they might be able to snatch something from the game.
But Aberdeen, for all that they were pegged back for a time, seemed happy that the contest had become faster and more open. With 25 minutes to play, Rooney looked to be through on goal after good work down the left, but he fluffed his shot on the turn and it barely trickled into MacDonald’s arms.
After being becalmed for a time, Hearts went back on to the attack, and Langfield did well to parry an excellent drive from Paterson. Billy King; the scorer of Hearts’ second goal in stoppage time in the derby, came on for David Smith, then Derek McInnes made his first change as Cammy Smith came on for Barry Robson.
Hearts were forced into another change when Wilson was sent off for a second yellow-card offence when he held Rooney back as both men went for a cross, Brad McKay coming on for Sam Nicholson. Willo Flood took the free kick from 25 yards out, and his skidding delivery deceived MacDonald and went straight into the net.
Needing to get a goal back to avoid relegation, Hearts threw everything they had left into a frantic final ten minutes. The closest they came from open play was when Stevenson dragged a shot wide of goal from inside the box.
Then, with time running out, Paterson went down under a challenge from Logan, and referee Kevin Clancy pointed to the spot. Hamill stepped up and coolly stroked the ball net to give his team the precious point they needed.
Hearts: MacDonald; Paterson, McGowan, Wilson, McHattie, Hamill, Holt, Smith (King 69), Stevenson, Nicholson (McKay 74), McCallum (Robinson 46). Subs not used: Ridgers, McGhee, Walker, Oliver.
Goals: J Hamill, 87(pen).
Booked: D Wilson, D Smith, P McCallum.
Sent off: D Wilson (second bookable offence).
Aberdeen: Langfield, Logan, Anderson, Reynolds, Considine, Jack, Flood, Robson (Smith 70), Pawlett (Vernon 78), Rooney, McGinn. Subs not used: Weaver, Tate, Shaughnessy, Low, McManus.
Goals: W Flood, 74.
Booked: S Logan, R Jack, P Pawlett.
Ref: K Clancy