HEARTS’ failings up front have been the focus of a lot of attention already this season, and were again in evidence in this Saturday lunchtime stalemate.
Motherwell 0 - 0 Hearts
Referee: C Allan
But, as we approach the midway point of what is shaping up as a long, very trying campaign for John McGlynn’s side, it is also worth reflecting on their virtues and, above all, on the remarkable resilience they continue to show.
Given the financial troubles at Tynecastle, it would be understandable if the players were distracted or disheartened. Instead, they continue to display a dogged determination which may lack the finesse that they showed at their best but which could nevertheless prove invaluable.
It is unwise to make predictions in a league of such inconsistency but, on present form, it looks unlikely that Hearts will finish in the top half of the table. True, they are currently only three points behind sixth-placed Motherwell, but they will probably lose a couple of players in January. And, if the squad is thus depleted, they will depend more than ever on the qualities on offer in their last three games, which have produced two draws and a win, each of them hard-fought.
That is not to suggest that this was little more than a backs-to-the-wall display, for Hearts were by some way the more inventive and positive side in the first half, when Motherwell appeared content to sit back and play on the counter-attack.
In the second half, however, as the tempo increased and the home team began to stretch the play, the composure of Marius Zaliukas and Andy Webster at the back was the key element in Hearts’ ability to claim a point.
Chris Humphrey who, in the first half, produced a couple of very inviting crosses for Michael Higdon, was even more of a threat down the right after the break. But, with the exception of an effort which skimmed the crossbar, his deliveries were invariably dealt with by the centre-halves or their defensive colleagues.
The faster pace of the second 45 minutes was certainly welcome after a soporific first half and, for a time, Hearts midfielder Jamie Walker was as inventive as Humphrey before being substituted with 25 minutes to play.
But, with Shaun Hutchinson impressive at the heart of the Motherwell defence, clear-cut chances were hard to come by at both ends.
The closest Hearts got to making the breakthrough in fact came in stoppage time, when Ryan McGowan headed wide from an Arvydas Novikovas cross. A goal at that stage would have been an injustice at the end of a game in which the teams had been so evenly balanced – although it should be said that the contest could have taken on a very different, more patchy complexion had the referee chosen to punish Darren Randolph for an early first-half incident involving Callum Paterson.
When a deflection spun back into the Motherwell area, Randolph came out to collect with Paterson in close attendance. The Hearts striker did not jump for the ball, and the goalkeeper caught it cleanly – but he also caught Paterson’s head with a trailing leg. Seen in real time, it looked like a collision which Paterson had time to avoid. With the benefit of television replays, however, there was at least one angle from which it appeared that Randolph could easily have avoided contact with his opponent.
If either the referee or his assistant had seen the incident from a similar angle, they could just as easily have awarded a penalty, and sent Randolph off into the bargain.
McGlynn suggested that Motherwell might have been fortunate to escape sanction, and McCall accepted that, while adding that benefiting from a spot of good luck would have made a change for his team this season.
Commentators often claim that an early dismissal ruins a game as a spectacle but it would surely have enlivened this one. Instead, we had to sit through another half-hour in which little happened other than a save by Jamie MacDonald from Higdon, and one by Randolph from Paterson.
Danny Grainger, who had taken a knee knock in the first half, was forced off in the early stages of the second. Hearts brought Mehdi Taouil on in midfield and recast their back four, but they kept their shape well – as they had to with Motherwell throwing more men forward in search of the winner. McCall must have thought it was coming when the Hearts defence was for once outfoxed and Jamie Murphy put Higdon through on MacDonald, but the goalkeeper put in a good block to deny the striker.
So Motherwell’s poor home run continued – they have won only one of eight SPL games at Fir Park, and have failed to score in four of them. For their part, Hearts have won only once on the road, but they were rightly content to head back to Edinburgh with another point.