IT’S the kind of start Hearts had dreamed of, the kind of start that will already have others sneaking a nervous peek over their shoulders as the young Tynecastle squad close in.
Going into the season with a 15-point deduction as a punishment for going into administration, after just four games that deficit has been slashed to nine points and everyone at the club is focusing on overcoming the remainder of the shortfall. The odds against them doing so are shrinking by the week. This young squad may lack something in experience but, unwilling to accept defeat, they have plenty of heart.
Last weekend they held their nerve after losing a late goal to take a point from the match against Partick Thistle. On Saturday they survived some early scares to head up the tunnel at half-time one up. In the second half, they weathered the ill fortune of injury to Brad McKay, the controversy of Kevin McHattie’s sending-off and the consequent Niall McGinn penalty. They refused to crack as the momentum swung in favour of Aberdeen and still came back at their guests with a late winner.
The fact that goal was scored by a 17-year-old is impressive but can no longer be considered a real surprise, given the age of this squad or the desire in the ranks. “They are definitely enthusiastic. They want to run all day and that is one thing we have got going for us,” said goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, one of the few older heads. “They will try, give 100 per cent and it is a chance for them to really show their talent.”
There is still a place for experience, however. While young Jason Holt pulled the strings in the middle of the park, Jamie Hamill was impressive all afternoon. Likewise, while young Jordan McGhee came on for the injured Brad McKay and headed home the decisive goal, at the other end, MacDonald wasn’t only a calming influence as the ground grew more and more frenzied, he also weighed in with a brilliant late save from Josh Magennis to deny Aberdeen a share of the spoils.
“After he scored, I had to say to Jordan to calm down,” said MacDonald. “You can easily get yourself over-excited and there was still five minutes to go. He could have done something rash with the adrenaline going, but my job was probably to calm everyone down a bit and make sure we saw the game out.”
It was Aberdeen’s fifth straight defeat at Tynecastle and given the form of Derek McInnes’s men coming into the game, it was one few predicted. It was also one that might have been avoided if Scott Vernon had been more clinical with the chances gifted to him in the first half. Three times he was through on goal but he wasted all three opportunities.
It was excruciating for his management and the Aberdeen fans to witness and even more galling when Jamie Walker gave Hearts the lead in the 17th minute to lift the home crowd and give his team-mates the belief they required to chase down every ball, pick out passes, make the last-gasp challenges and run until the final whistle sounded.
The ball through to him was inch perfect from Holt and Walker hurried towards goal before arrowing a low drive past Nicky Weaver from just outside the box. But Aberdeen didn’t throw in the towel. They continued to play their passing game, they homed in on the Hearts goal and they created more openings. Peter Pawlett and Johnny Hayes provided the width and the guile, Calvin Zola was busy when he came on for Vernon and eventually they got the chance to level. It was a penalty decision contested by those of a maroon hue but one gratefully accepted by the visitors.
Kevin McHattie was red carded for a challenge on Zola in the box, but his team-mates insisted it was harsh. “From my point of view, I thought Kevin got round him and managed to flick the ball,” said MacDonald. I also thought he [Zola] might have been offside on the wrong side of the defender when it was flicked on. The referee made his decision but it is just a credit to all the boys to rally round and get the win.”
McGinn netted his third spot-kick of the campaign to level and Aberdeen could have got another shortly afterwards, only for Pawlett to be booked for diving after he tumbled in the area. The player has previous for simulation but Hayes leapt to his defence.
“He’s a bit upset in there because he knows the boy has taken him out. Peter was unfortunate because of the way he falls,” said Hayes. “Other referees have given him bookings for diving before and I think the referee has made the wrong decision. Sometimes he goes down in training and the manager won’t give him a free kick, but it’s just the way he falls and he can’t do anything about it.”
Regardless of the validity of the shout, the referee wasn’t convinced and with time running out Hearts were the side who eventually found the winner. Callum Tapping’s free kick in from the right was met by McGhee at the back post. As it dropped into Weaver’s net, there was delirium in the stands and in the technical areas. Assistant manager Billy Brown’s celebrations prompted an altercation with McInnes for which they were both sent to the stand.
MacDonald says he can expect some stick but insisted it was simply a case of emotions getting the better of everyone. The place was alive with emotion and it carried Hearts to a vital three points, which could yet go a long way to ensuring their top-flight survival.