THE season may now be a quarter in but, frankly, the trapdoor that seems to be drawing Hearts towards relegation feels more than halfway open.
Scorers: Kilmarnock: Boyd 16, 63
The latest defeat for the Tynecastle side means they have taken one point from a possible 21 and now haven’t won a Premiership game since August.
Even without the 15 points they were docked for going into administration, they would not have a better tally than any other team in the top flight.
Kilmarnock, inspired by a delectable double from Kris Boyd, bagged a second win of the season only eight days on from having achieved a first victory. In doing so, they extended the gap between themselves and Hearts to 16 points. The shuddering to a halt of the St Mirren mini-revival means they are one point below the Rugby Park men. Essentially, then, Hearts have made no headway in overcoming their handicap. Their problem is that they look to have too many restrictions. The registration embargo that has forced them to play a largely under-21 team is beginning to be writ large in their performances, with a marshmallow soft central defence and little to offer in attack.
Hearts manager Gary Locke lamented both weakenesses, which must alarm him ahead of Wednesday’s League Cup quarter-final derby at Easter Road. Though the failure to deal with through balls that allowed a revitalised home No.9 to pounce seemed to frustrate him more, he did return to all-too-familiar themes. “We started the season with no recognised strikers and ideally I would like to have a Kris Boyd in my team,” Locke said. Proof that the fates were conspiring against Hearts was evidenced by the injury that forced Ryan Stevenson off after only 19 minutes. The problem centred on the same knee that left him sidelined for two months earlier in the season.
The afternoon also brought concerns over former Hearts player Darren Barr, with the Kilmarnock centre-back placed in a neckbrace and removed on a stretcher after a collision with Callum Paterson in the 24th minute. An eerie silence descended on the stadium as Barr lay motionless for minutes after a groggy Paterson had walked away rubbing the side of his face. Kilmarnock manager Allan Johnston said the player had been taken to Crosshouse Hospital but had no more information. “It looked a bad one,” the Ayrshire club’s manager said. “He was speaking when he came off on the stretcher so hopefully [the neckbrace] was just precautionary.”
Johnston, pictured, could delight in every other aspect of the afternoon, his praise for Boyd effusive. Locke, meanwhile, said his team were “right back where we started”, but they are not. At the start of the season there was optimism among his young squad. Now this is being seriously, and weekly, eroded.
While Kilmarnock and St Mirren have pulled themselves out of troughs through experienced players stepping up, Hearts can never find that ‘out’.
Danny Wilson made a hash of recognising the danger when Sean Clossey hoisted a ball down the right channel in 16 minutes and Brad McKay merely compounded that error by slipping as Boyd beetled in.
However, the former Rangers striker was precision personified both in the manner he worked his way round defender and planted the ball beyond Jamie MacDonald. For his second in 63 minutes, the 30-year-old, exhibiting a zest that was unmistakable, latched on to a chip forward from Jerome Tesselaar and in one seamless movement touched the ball inside before chipping the helpless MacDonald. It was a display to ignite chat of Boyd, now on six goals for the season, and an international recall under Gordon Strachan, who signed him for Middlesbrough in a move that proved fruitless.
For his own part, Boyd craves a return to the international scene but didn’t seemed so taken by the suggestion that with a handful of players unavailable for the friendlies against USA and Norway next month, an opportunity could be about to present itself.
“I have always said I want to get myself back in a Scotland jersey, but I want to get back without four or five call-offs. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’d be delighted to be called up,” the player said. “It might be a long while away and I will need to play a few more games and score a few more goals to be considered.
“But all I can do is give myself the best chance.”