“IF ONLY every game could start in that manner,” said Dundee United manager Jackie McNamara in his programme notes, reflecting, of course, on last weekend’s cup tie.
Dundee Utd - Russell (2), Flood (62), Gardyne (89)
Hearts - Ngoo (76)
That day Johnny Russell found the net after just 15 seconds and, while the start yesterday was laborious by comparison, no one could accuse the United players of being slow out the blocks.
This time it took Russell two minutes to find a way through the Hearts rearguard, his right-foot strike from a John Rankin cross setting his team on their way to a valuable three points and to within four points of second place in the SPL.
But in the eyes of many, it took the referee just 25 minutes to kill the game.
By the time Ryan Stevenson was sent off in the 25th minute, having stretched out into a tackle, Hearts were down by one goal, and without their captain Marius Zaliukas who had to go off with an ankle injury in the 18th minute.
They had also sussed out that luck was not going to be on their side as Michael Ngoo’s blistering 19th-minute strike cannoned back off the crossbar.
But, if the sending off hampered Hearts, it also seemed to dull the tempo of United’s play as Hearts tried to get bodies behind the ball and settle things down.
The Tannadice men, in their first SPL match under McNamara, had started the afternoon full of energy and self-belief, with Gary Mackay-Steven and Russell causing real problems in the wide areas, but the gaffer claimed they lost their
impetus after Hearts had lost their man.
“We started well,” said McNamara. “I think Hearts came into it a wee bit before the sending off but that kind of killed the game for both teams, really. I thought he came in for the tackle and caught him but I didn’t see how high off the ground he was and Willie has deemed it a straight red. It might have been harsh but I will look back at it on the telly.”
Hearts manager John McGlynn seemed just as irritated by the way the decision had affected the game but refused to be drawn on the fact the player and official have previous.
It was Collum who ignored a Stevenson challenge on James McPake in the New Year derby only for the Tynecastle midfielder to be handed a retrospective two-match ban.
Maybe he was trying to make amends for that oversight, but many felt he had erred on the side of caution this time in what was a tough call, and two wrongs do not make a right.
“You know I can’t say anything,” said McGlynn, “but I understand why you are all thinking that.
“I haven’t seen it again but those who have reckon it was harsh, so we will have a look at it and see if it is worthwhile appealing or not.
“But that doesn’t help us on the day. Ryan says the lad said he never touched him but the referee told him that he had to go by the rulebook. Not that he even thought it was that bad. The players feel you can hardly go into a tackle on the ground with your studs on the ground because your studs will catch so basically you can’t go to ground at all now.
“The sending off killed off what was for 25 minutes a very, very good game although, unfortunately for us, we were already a goal behind, although if Michael hadn’t hit the bar it might have been 1-1.”
But Stevenson wasn’t the only one punished by a refereeing performance that squeezed as much of the joy, the competitiveness and common sense as possible out of proceedings.
When Willo Flood, who had conducted most of the play through the middle of the park, scored in the 62nd minute after a delightful one-two with Russell, the Irishman, who doesn’t score too many, raced towards the away fans in celebration. He didn’t leave the pitch, he didn’t even get that close, but he was punished for his jubilation.
Two goals up and the game was all but sealed. The capital club might have pegged them back in the 68th minute but Ngoo saw another effort foiled by the bar.
He did find the net eventually, in the 75th minute, but with the clock ticking down, substitute Michael Garydne rounded off the scoring after Jon Daly fizzed the ball across the goalmouth.
Referee: Willie Collum.