DAYS like yesterday are exactly why talk of Hearts challenging for the title is ridiculous, according to their manager.
Robbie Neilson was unperturbed that his men passed up the opportunity to close the gap on Celtic, who had dropped points at home, but he was annoyed that they had handed Aberdeen the initiative in the chase for second place.
Derek McInnes’s side play this afternoon and victory would see them overtake the Tynecastle outfit, who sit just two points ahead of them.
“Look, people have been saying we are going to challenge and this and that – if you want to win the league you need to win games like this. Simple as,” said the disappointed Gorgie boss. “We’re not ready to go and win these games, not ready to win them consistently and that’s what you have to do.
“Hopefully we can build a team that can go and do that. You have to win against Dundee at home, you have to win against Motherwell away. It takes players time to do that. It takes players time to adapt to the game in Scotland. It takes younger players time to grow and become more experienced. On our day we are a team who can compete with anyone. But over the course of the season that’s the difference.
“To be honest the most frustrating thing is Aberdeen now have the chance to leapfrog us. We’d hoped to get another three points and keep that gap and put pressure on them. Yeah, we could have moved closer to Celtic but that’s not our target. Our target is to try and get near Aberdeen.”
The frustration was obvious. Dundee had gone from a team who had hardly threatened in the first half to a team on level pegging and ending the afternoon looking like they could leave the capital with all three points. Credit should go to Paul Hartley’s men but Hearts will be kicking themselves for the way they allowed momentum to shift.
That they would spend the last half hour of this match scrapping for even a share of the spoils seemed unlikely after the first 30 minutes or so of the contest.
Throughout that spell the home side’s pace and on-the-ball trickery suggested a far more one-sided afternoon. It wasn’t quite the sublime to the ridiculous for the Tynecastle side but it did veer from pretty impressive to something considerably less so.
In front of yet another sell-out crowd, the capital team started brightly, with Sam Nicholson and Billy King proving particularly irksome to the visitors, bursting down the wings or cutting inside and evading lunges as they carved a way through. Arnaud Djoum was another lively contributor as verve and pace in the midfield threatened all kinds of rewards as Dundee were forced to weather a mini squall.
Both Osman Sow and Djoum had efforts blocked or saved in the opening seven minutes when the tenacity of King caused more problems.
Hearts dominated at that stage and dictating the tempo they finally got the breakthrough. It came in the 24th minute and was a result of patience and a turn of pace as well as a great cross and enterprising movement in the box. Keeping hold of the ball, they strung passes together, moving it across and back, probing and prodding before a gap and an explosive attack saw Paterson released on the right. He swung in a perfect cross for Djoum to attack at the far post and his downward header from ten yards out was unstoppable.
If the play up to that point had even inventive and full of drive and energy, they lost that zip when King was forced to go off after his turn of pace caught Kevin Thomson off guard and he clattered him.
Maybe they thought the second goal would still materialise, maybe they had full faith in defence who had not conceded a goal in the league since 3 October, but it was a foolhardy mindset.
From the sidelines Neilson tried to gee up his team. The drop in productivity and inspiration annoyed the manager and encouraged the guests. They came out in the second half and took the game by the scruff of the neck.
“I was delighted for the team today. This is a tough venue and shows how far we have come as a group, said Hartley, happy to be the team to damage his old club’s defensive record.
“That was the first goal they have lost in five. The second-half performance… we were by far the better team and looked dangerous. I felt we got into good situations in the final third and it was a good goal from [Rory] Loy. We always looked a threat.”
That paid off in the 67th minute when they grabbed the equaliser. A through ball from the excellent Greg Stewart found the striker and although Hearts appealed for offside, it looked like full-back Juwon Oshaniwa played him on and he made the most of it to beat Neil Alexander.
They then went in search of the winner. Hearts were able to stave that off and conjure up a few attacks of their own as the game played out. It wasn’t good enough for their fans, some of whom booed their team at the final whistle. More importantly, it wasn’t good enough for their manager.