THESE are extraordinary times for Hearts, and this was an extraordinary performance.
Scorers: Partick Thistle - Muirhead, 85; Hearts - Walker, 87
One-all draws are so common that most of them, almost by definition, are humdrum; a minority are entertaining; and even fewer are inspiring. This one was inspiring.
Like their previous away game against St Johnstone, Gary Locke’s team had to withstand periods of almost continuous pressure from Partick Thistle and could have lost by three or four goals. Unlike the match at McDiarmid Park, which ended in a 1-0 defeat, they emerged with a point, hitting back after a late Aaron Muirhead penalty looked like it had at least sealed all three points for the home team.
That 15-point deficit with which Hearts began the season as a penalty for going into administration is now down to 11, and they will watch today’s matches in the keen hope that at least one of the teams above them will remain on zero points. A second win in the space of six days would have been preferable, of course, but given the number of chances Thistle carved out, no-one from the Tynecastle camp could rightly have complained about the result.
Thistle, by contrast, knew they should have sealed the win long before they opened the scoring. Even so, having drawn their first match against Dundee United and then beaten Ross County, they remain unbeaten, and on this form look more likely to challenge for a top-six place than become embroiled in a relegation battle.
Thistle began the game confidently, making good use of Stephen O’Donnell’s pace down the right to put Kevin McHattie under pressure. Their first few crosses into the box were not of sufficient quality to really test the Hearts defence, but in the tenth minute they fared better with a free-kick from a more central position.
Former Hearts player Conrad Balatoni met the chipped delivery and got in a shot on the turn which Kris Doolan prodded past Jamie MacDonald into the corner of the net, but the celebrations had barely begun before it was seen that the assistant referee rightly had his flag up for offside.
Encouraged by that promising beginning, Thistle continued to press forward in search of the opening goal, and should have scored it after 20 minutes. When Hearts could only clear as far as O’Donnell, he spotted Balatoni unmarked on the far side of the box, and put in an inviting cross. Balatoni appeared to have the time to think about where to place his header, but he timed his jump wrong and
directed the ball over the bar.
Despite that miss, it still seemed only a matter of time before Thistle opened the scoring, as Hearts continued to look porous at the back and were scarcely able to break out of their own half. When James Craigen got behind the defence with 25 minutes on the clock, his lob towards goal needed only a touch from Doolan to go in, but the striker, under pressure from the defence, was unable to make contact.
The situation improved for Hearts in the last ten minutes of the half, but when Jason Holt and Jamie Hamill managed to combine down the right to get the ball to David Smith inside the box, his cross-cum-shot was blocked. At the other end, Sean Welsh emphasised Thistle’s dominance – and their inability to capitalise on it – with a shot from the right edge of the penalty area. Like Balatoni’s earlier header, the captain had time to get his shot on target, but instead blasted it too high.
Doolan then had another effort from the opposite side of the box, but this time it went wide of the post. The home team went in at half-time knowing they could have had the game wrapped up, while Hearts, though relieved still to be in the contest, knew they would have to be far more competitive in the second half if they were to avoid a second defeat in just their third game of the season.
Welsh, who had needed treatment just before the break, was replaced at the restart by Kallum Higginbotham. Notwithstanding that change in personnel, Thistle began the second half as they had left off the first, with Craigen being put through on goal only to drive low across goal and beyond the far post.
After that let-off, Hearts enjoyed their best spell of the match for a while, yet still without being able to pose a real threat to Scott Fox’s goal until 20 minutes in, when Danny Wilson headed just over from a McHattie corner. Billy King, on for Smith, then had a shot deflected for another corner, but this time the defence were able to clear.
Thistle were not pinned down for long, though, and a long-range shot from Shaun Fraser was not too wide of the mark. Craigen was on target a couple of minutes later with a diving header from a John Baird cross, but MacDonald was ideally positioned to block.
As the match entered its closing quarter-hour, Thistle redoubled their efforts. MacDonald just got an arm to a dipping shot on the run from Baird. With ten minutes left, Steven Lawless’s shot was goalbound until MacDonald stretched to turn it round for a corner. When the ball came in from the right, Baird went down in the box under a challenge from Walker, and the referee had no hesitation in awarding a penalty. Muirhead blasted the spot-kick down the middle, and Thistle at last had a reward for their efforts.
It was a lead the home side would feel they deserved for their overall domincance of the match, but far from being dismayed by this late blow, Hearts fought back and were level within two minutes.
With both teams tiring, Walker found space some 20 yards out, ran almost unopposed into the box, and curled a right-foot shot into the net from close to the penalty spot.