IF Aberdeen had seemed to make life difficult for themselves by inviting the title-contending hype even earlier than last season, then they coped admirably with the latest challenge to make it eight wins in a row.
This challenge from the north-east has been looking a lot like the previous one in terms of the torrent of words and opinion and out-of-work-legend tuppence-worths it’s provoked. There’s been one crucial difference, the Dons have beaten Celtic.
That would count for nothing, or very little, if they’d failed just the latest big test. Hearts had been going along quite nicely themselves until two defeats in a row prompted a reality-check and a re-drawing of the dafter notions of what they could achieve this term.
To try and get those defeats out of their system, the Jambos went on a team-bonding night out. Their restaurant of choice specialises in Portuguese peri-peri products, which can be flame-grilled, according to how brave you’re feeling. Robbie Neilson’s men had hoped to turn in an “extra-hot” performance, but this was more “lime and herb”. They managed to get back into the game early in the second half but ultimately were well beaten.
Sold-out Tynecastle was a scarf-twirling cauldron which almost inevitably made for some rushed and scrappy opening exchanges, but the first goal came from a slow and studied Aberdeen build-up.
The young captain, Ryan Jack, was involved four times in the lead-up as the ball reached Goodwillie on the left flank. A needless Callum Paterson foul resulted in a free-kick, delivered by McGinn, and Goodwillie’s downward header was strong enough to beat Neil Alexander, who got a hand to it but couldn’t prevent the score.
Hearts huffed and puffed to find a way back into a pulsating match but Gavin Reilly seemed to lack belief when put down the right by Jamie Walker. Jack was cool in snuffing out that danger and it was the skipper who sprung McGinn for the league leaders’ second in the 23rd minute. McGinn, almost down by the corner flag on the left, still had plenty to do even for a sight of goal but blurred away Blazej Augustyn as if he wasn’t there, sold Paterson a dummy and from a still tight angle zinged his shot past Alexander.
Although there was still plenty of time left in the game, and plenty of life left in Hearts, you felt that if Aberdeen were to surrender all three points from such an advantageous and controlling position, that in the story of this season they’d have deep regrets. But a tackle by Paul Quinn was a strong indication they weren’t about to do that. Osman Sow seemed to have muscled the Aberdeen man aside and was winding up for a left-foot shot, but Quinn came thundering back at him for a tremendous block. It seemed every bit as important as the goals.
Hearts’ most sustained pressure of the half produced a couple of penalty appeals and three corners, and from one of them Igor Rossi headed powerfully at goal, only for Shay Logan to flick the effort over the bar. Then Jamie Walker set off on a diagonal run which took him to the edge of the Aberdeen box. Jack blocked his shot, which was all that was required, but he was annoyed with himself for the ball having spun out for another corner. Again, this appeared to be a telling moment of the Dons’ doggedness.
The third goal of a quite stunning opening 45 minutes for Aberdeen came from another of their lightning break-aways. Peter Pawlett fed McGinn on half-way and he sprinted away from Miguel Pallardo, the midfielder having been booked previously being unable to risk a professional foul. McGinn’s pass to Goodwillie was perfect and, while Alexander seemed to slip at the vital moment, the striker’s finish was true enough in any case.
From its earlier raucousness Tynecastle had fallen a bit quiet but the home fans had a goal to cheer seven minutes after the re-start. The otherwise impeccable Jack lost possession just over halfway and from the resultant break Walker’s shot was turned round the post by Danny Ward. Walker took the corner and in the melee Rossi fired home for his first Jambos’ goal.
Then Aberdeen had two chances in as many minutes to re-establish their three-goal lead but McGinn and Pawlett saw their efforts saved by Alexander. Both should have scored, although the Dons rearguard was to stay granite-strong for the rest of the game. Ash Taylor was the most conspicuous Don in the closing stages because of his shocking-pink headband. He might have looked like an aerobics instructor, or an Olivia Newton-John fan, but he was tough enough to withstand the challenges of Sow, Juanma Delgado and all the other big guys in maroon. Hearts never gave up but the closest they came to another goal was a Paterson free-kick which took a deflection off the defensive wall and clipped the bar.
For them, it’s back to Nando’s. For Aberdeen, it’s on to the next big one, which will be bigger than this, though nothing like as big as the one after that…
SCORERS: Hearts - Rossi (52); Aberdeen - Goodwillie (9, 45), McGinn (23)
Referee: B Madden