IF Motherwell had been concerned about slipping standards, those fears were allayed yesterday as they lifted their game and their manager’s spirits.
It was the kind of performance – albeit against a side far adrift at the foot of the table – that would have them challenging at the very top of the table if they could combine the flair with the required consistency, according to the man who spent the afternoon pulling the strings.
Even when his manager signalled that James McFadden could come off and give his weary legs a rest, he refused. “I was enjoying myself too much,” he said.
McFadden was involved in helping his team-mates to three goals before shrugging aside his fatigue to wrap up the scoring with a 74th-minute contribution of his own.
In his preferred position just in behind John Sutton, he gave a near flawless example of how to link up play and torture defenders.
Motherwell remain in the battle for second place, and while pegging back Aberdeen will take some doing, yesterday’s display against a Hearts side trying to delay the drop for as long as possible will have lifted their hopes after two straight defeats.
Against Celtic last week Gary Locke’s men had made a game of it. Yesterday, though, Motherwell dominated from beginning to end. The lack of creativity and goal threat that has hampered the Tynecastle side, added to the kind of naive defending that left their manager scratching his head, meant there was only ever going to be one team celebrating at the final whistle.
Stuart McCall had made no excuses following Well’s defeats to St Johnstone and Dundee United, stating that neither the results nor the performances had been acceptable. As a result, his players upped their standards and comfortably outclassed their guests – the scoreline an accurate indication of the gulf between the teams on the day.
To be fair to Hearts, while they left Fir Park frustrated by their own inadequacies, when Motherwell are on this kind of form then most teams in the league would struggle to compete with them.
“If the attacking players are playing well then we’ve a chance of beating anyone,” said James McFadden, adding that the foundation provided by solid defending gives them the freedom to go at teams.
The form of the forwards was a source of joy for McCall, who revelled in the fact that all four weighed in with a goal.
The first came in the 17th minute and McFadden was the provider, passing an inch-perfect ball through for Iain Vigurs to stab it low into Jamie MacDonald’s net.
McFadden was again the supply man in the 36th minute, this time getting to the byeline and playing the ball back for Lionel Ainsworth.
The three of them were a constant source of pleasure for the home fans and management – and a permanent nuisance for an away defence that was too easily breached.
At half-time Locke made a change, taking off one of his centre-backs, Brad McKay, and reshuffling the pack. Dylan McGowan moved in one berth and Callum Paterson was moved to right back, creating a striking vacancy for Dale Carrick.
He almost dragged his side back into the game, showing a more direct attitude and using his pace to make space for himself by cutting in from the left but his shot came back off the crossbar.
“We were 2-0 down when he hit the bar and, if that goes in, then it could have been a different game,” Locke mused afterwards.
However, he admitted: “It was difficult. We have made strides in the past couple of months but this was a step back. I felt we kept the ball enough in the first half, without causing any problems. But most of the day we didn’t get to grips with Ainsworth and McFadden and that was our downfall.
“I was really disappointed with at least three of the goals and they just waltzed through the centre of defence.”
With Carrick missing his effort, Hearts were preparing Jason Holt and Billy King on the sidelines in the hope of getting something back but were even further behind before the substitutions could take place, with McFadden getting the ball away – despite being bundled over on
the edge of the box – and former Hearts striker Sutton was the final beneficiary. That was in the 65th minute and although Paterson did reduce the deficit temporarily, four minutes later, bulleting home a Kevin McHattie corner, Motherwell reasserted themselves in the 74th minute.
The fact that it was McFadden who rounded things off was just reward for a shift that turned back the clock for him and got his team back into the chase for second place.
Motherwell: Hollis, Reid, Francis-Angol (Murray 34), Lasley (Carswell 80), Hutchinson, McManus, Ainsworth (Cadden 83), McFadden, Sutton, Vigurs. Subs not used: Nielsen, Shirkie, Thomas. Goals: Vigurs 18; Ainsworth 37; Sutton 65; McFadden 74. Booked: Hutchinson.
Hearts: MacDonald, McGowan, McHattie, Robinson (King 65), McKay (Carrick 45), Wilson, Stevenson, Hamill, Paterson, McCallum, Nicholson. Subs not used: Ridgers, Beith, Oliver, McGhee. Goals: Paterson 69. Booked: McGowan, Paterson.
Ref: J Beaton. Attendance: 4,914