HEARTS have tried their utmost to limit the damage caused by their financial problems, but it is a thankless task.
Scorers: Kilmarnock - Heffernan (42, 65, 71)
Referee: C Thomson
The loss of three goals, all scored by Paul Heffernan at Tynecastle on Saturday, demonstrated that even their defence, the one department of the team that could be relied upon to stand firm, is crumbling under the pressure.
Now, more than ever, the impact of their cost-cutting measures is being felt. One win in eight matches. Three points adrift of ninth-placed Dundee United. And, perhaps most disturbing of all, eight goals conceded in three games, nearly a quarter of the number they have lost for the entire season. What used to be their strength is beginning to look suspiciously like a weakness.
Hearts started this campaign with Ryan McGowan, Andy Webster, Marius Zaliukas and Kevin McHattie strung across the back four. McGowan has since left. McHattie later made way for Danny Grainger, who is now out with a long-term injury, as is Zaliukas. Only Webster remains, but he is no more likely than his defensive colleagues to be at the club next season.
The situation was exacerbated on Saturday when Darren Barr, deputising for Zaliukas at centre-half, was stretchered off before anyone had scored. He lay motionless after a clash of heads with team-mate Danny Wilson, suffered concussion and had to be given oxygen in the dressing room. It is perhaps as well he didn’t see what followed. Hearts had been no great shakes when Barr was on the field, but after his departure, they were worse. Hopelessly vulnerable to the counter-attack, they lost one goal before half-time and two after it, leaving John McGlynn, their manager, to blame slipshod defending for the margin of defeat.
The second goal, after 65 minutes, particularly irritated him. When James Dayton swung in a corner to the back post, William Gros was allowed to climb above his opponents and nod the ball down to Heffernan. The ball fell slightly behind the striker, but he had enough time and space to adjust his body before finding the net.
On a day when the match programme was a 3D package, complete with tinted goggles, you didn’t need glasses to see the problem. Hearts used to say they had the best defence in the SPL, which compensated for their shortcomings up front, but not any more. The odd goal from their blunt attack is no longer enough.
Which is not to say that Barr’s replacement, Dylan McGowan, or indeed any of the youngsters who form most of Hearts’ team, should have their potential questioned. They have responded well to the challenge this season, and will be the better for it in years to come, but until then, their mistakes, even at the back, will have to be tolerated.
McGlynn hinted as much when he was asked about his youthful starting line-up, which included eight “men” who were 21 or under. Among the five teenagers was 18-year-old Billy King.
“You can’t say the young players let us down,” said the manager. “They will learn from it, but we will have to take a few of these on the chin. That is the hard bit.”
Hearts had plenty of the ball, but, as usual, there was no cutting edge, save for a flurry early in the second half, when Cammy Bell saved shots by Jamie Walker and Fraser Mullen. There was also a header by Michael Ngoo – cleared off the line by Ross Barbour – but even the big Englishman was less threatening than he has been since arriving on loan from Liverpool.
If only they had a young Heffernan on their books. Kenny Shiels, the Kilmarnock manager, did not take kindly to a suggestion later that the 31-year-old former Sheffield Wednesday striker had been given only three chances, and scored the lot, but it was meant as a compliment.
The first came just before the interval, when Dayton collected a cross-field pass wide on the left. His ball across the six-yard area was a striker’s dream, as Heffernan showed with a well-timed run to the front post.
Merely by opening his right boot, he diverted it over the line.
His second goal involved a little more work, but the third underlined once again his knack of being in the right place at the right time. After another of Kilmarnock’s sweeping breaks up the pitch, Jamie MacDonald parried a shot by Borja Perez, only to see Heffernan stroke the loose ball over the line. Gros, the Frenchman who supported Heffernan up front, later compared him to Gary Hooper.
Kilmarnock have no more resources than Hearts, but they are used to poverty.
Now fifth in the SPL, they have a 100 per cent record against McGlynn’s team this season. They have not lost to the Edinburgh side in their past eight meetings.
More startling still is their unbeaten record at Tynecastle, which stretches back nearly three years. No wonder their supporters were chanting “can we play you every week?”