HEARTS’ improvement in form may have come too late to preserve their place in the top flight, but it continues to augur extremely well for life in the Championship next season.
SCORERS: Hearts - Paterson 37, 41; Hibernian - Forster 69
Yesterday’s victory, their fourth of the season in the Edinburgh derby, took their haul of points to 13 from the last five games, and was further proof of the competitive character they now have under manager Gary Locke.
But for their 15-point penalty for going into administration, the Tynecastle team would now be level on points with Hibernian, for whom this was a tenth consecutive game without a win. Terry Butcher’s team remain eighth, but only on goal difference from Partick Thistle and Ross County, and are now just a point clear of the play-off place.
This was Hibs’ best performance for some time, at least when it came to showing a willingness to compete in the middle of the park. But the merits they had in that department were again undone by the two principal failings that have dogged them all season: insecurity at the back and a lack of a real goal threat up front.
True, lone striker Jason Cummings ran intelligently to link up with his midfield, and discounting his team’s goal was the biggest danger to Hearts. But James Collins, a second-half substitute for the 18-year-old, wasted one priceless chance late in the game, appearing to miss the ball and connect with Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald instead after an attempted clearance had ricocheted into his path.
Collins did have one excellent effort on goal right at the end of the six minutes of stoppage time, but MacDonald got a hand to his powerful shot to keep it out. And, to add insult to injury, the offside flag was up in any case.
At the other end, Hearts right-back Callum Paterson seized gleefully on the two opportunities that came his way. Hibs needed to show some fortitude after going in at the break two goals down, and when Jordon Forster got a goal back they played with a conviction that has been sorely absent for the past two months or more.
The key question now for Butcher’s team is whether they can play with the same desire in their three remaining games, beginning on Saturday at home to Partick Thistle. Those matches – Ross County away then Kilmarnock at home are the others – will be less intense than the derby, but at the same time even more high-pressure occasions.
The Hibs support must have shredded nerves by this time, and they can only hope that the players remain as self-possessed and determined as they did at their best in this game. Having said that, it was only once they went two goals down – for the fifth game in succession – that Hibs did manage to string some decent passages of play together. And even then some of their more promising moves were brought to an end by inaccurate passes.
Hearts, by contrast, looked the more composed team from the start. The first attempt on goal came from Kevin Thomson, but in general Hibs got off to a hesitant start and were second to most balls in the first quarter of an hour.
Back from injury, Scott Robertson produced some positive stuff in midfield alongside Thomson and Liam Craig, but it was his near-namesake, Hearts’ Scott Robinson, who was the most impressive performer in the engine room. Cummings had a couple of decent efforts midway through the half as Hibs came more into the game – one was an off-target header, the other a long-range shot saved by MacDonald – but then in the last ten minutes of the half Hearts struck twice.
First, every outfield player stood and watched as Paterson’s downward header from a King corner bounced out of Ben Williams’ reach and into the corner of the net, then the same player met a Kevin McHattie free kick from the right to nod in at the back. The Hearts player timed his run well on both occasions, but a more alert defence would at least have made it more difficult to score.
Forster, one of the most culpable Hibs players at those goals, had a header cleared off the line early in the second half by Robinson. Hearts were unable to keep out the centre-half’s header from a Ryan McGivern cross around quarter of an hour later, and that goal – Hibs’ first since a 3-1 defeat at Firhill in mid-March – prompted a sustained late rally by the home team.
But Collins’s pitiful miss some six minutes from the end of normal time was as close as they came to getting an equaliser. Ryan Stevenson could have ensured Hearts of a more comfortable conclusion to the game, but he chipped wide of the far post when through on Williams.
In stoppage time, Hibs only had one real chance – if something can be deemed a chance when the flag is already up. They are still not creating enough clear-cut scoring opportunities, and still not turning a sufficient number of chances into goals.
Butcher was correct to say they played better yesterday than they had done for some time, but they will need to carry on getting better if they are to dig themselves out of their increasingly precarious position…even then there is still a risk that, like Hearts, they may find that their improvement has come too late to save them.
Hibernian: Williams, Maybury, Forster, Nelson, McGivern, Harris, Robertson (Watmore 65), Thomson, Craig, Stanton, Cummings (Collins 71). Subs not used: Murdoch, Stevenson, Boateng, Handling, Jones.
Hearts: MacDonald, Paterson, McGowan, Wilson, McHattie, Nicholson (Smith 56), Holt, Robinson, Stevenson, King (Walker 80), Carrick (McKay 87). Subs not used: Ridgers, McGhee, Oliver, McCallum.