AMID all Hearts’ financial difficulties and on-field inconsistency, it has been easy to forget that they still have a gifted squad capable of playing some decent football.
Hearts 2 - 1 Dundee United
Scorers: Hearts - Stevenson 15, 31 (pen); Dundee United - Watson 57
Referee: C Thomson
In some matches they have struggled to create any chances, never mind score the odd goal, and looked more like an uncomfortable collection of individuals than a team.
They don’t look like that any more. In recent weeks, they have been more positive, more confident and more dynamic, and it cannot be a coincidence that the improvement has come about since John McGlynn had the courage to switch from a 4-5-1 line-up to 4-4-2.
The difference has not quite been night and day, but in a tight division it has been enough to bring about a significant improvement in the Edinburgh club’s league position. This morning, thanks to yesterday’s hard-won three points, they are inside the the top six for the first time in three months.
Having fallen 2-0 behind in the first half, Dundee United were arguably worth a point thanks to a rousing second-half recovery. But the Hearts defence was particularly strong in the air, and the home attack had as many opportunities to kill off the game as their opposite numbers did to snatch a point.
The Tynecastle team’s improvement, both in this game and over the last two or three weeks, has been best embodied by Ryan Stevenson, who was short of match fitness when he first returned to his old club, but is now showing signs of his old predatory sharpness.
Getting regular games may be the main cause, but there is little doubt that he is also benefitting from a formation in which he plays behind two strikers and can break from midfield.
That was most evident in the opening goal of the game, which came about when a Brian McLean clearance was headed back into the box by Dylan McGowan. John Sutton and McLean himself battled for control, and just as the striker appeared to have won the tussle, Gavin Gunning nipped in – but only to tap the ball into the path of Stevenson, who had no hesitation in firing a low shot home from eight yards out.
McLean had a perfect chance to make amends just two minutes later from a Barry Douglas free-kick, with Jamie MacDonald parrying a Jon Daly header straight to him. But, with no-one close, the defender mis-hit the ball, sending it crashing off the post from a yard out.
United continued to impress with their build-up work, but they fell two behind after half an hour from the penalty spot. Ryan McGowan’s throw-in from the right was touched on by Stevenson to Dylan McGowan, and as he turned and prepared to shoot, the younger Australian brother was pulled back in the box by Willo Flood.
Referee Craig Thomson awarded a penalty, which Stevenson calmly placed just inside the left post.
The first incident of note in the second half came in the 51st minute, when the Hearts supporters began chanting in praise of Rudi Skacel, who was playing at Tynecastle for the first time since ending his second spell with the club in the summer. The ovation was timed in tribute to the score in May’s Scottish Cup final, in which Skacel, whose United shirt bears the number 51, scored two goals in the victory over Hibs.
Some United fans were seen to react angrily when the Czech player acknowledged the applause, but they were pleased enough not long afterwards when he played a crucial part in the goal which got their team back into the contest. When Barry Douglas crossed in a free kick from the left, the Hearts defence cleared only as far as Skacel, who did not connect cleanly, but at least managed to direct the ball to Keith Watson on the left of the box.
As Jamie MacDonald raised an arm to appeal for offside against Jon Daly, Watson shot on the turn to score high into the opposite corner of the net.
United were given fresh optimism by the goal, but it could have been snuffed out minutes later when a corner was initially cleared but then fed back in beyond an outrushing defence to Gordon Smith. The assistant referee’s flag stayed down, but the striker could only send a weak shot straight into the arms of Radoslaw Cierzniak.
A third goal for Hearts at that stage of the game would have spelled an end to the contest, but instead United continued to battle in search of the equaliser.
They had Cierzniak to thank again ten minutes from time when he positioned himself well to save an Andy Webster volley from a Kevin McHattie cross, and the goalkeeper then did even better to turn a 20-yard drive by substitute Callum Paterson behind for a corner. At the other end, Johnny Russell sent a flying header well wide when the Hearts defence for once failed to cut out a cross. The striker seemed unduly annoyed with himself for what had been an ambitious attempt to get a very difficult delivery on target, and would have been better to save his self-criticism for the chance he missed in stoppage time – as it turned out, United’s last of the game.
A hopeful punt forward by McLean should have been dealt with by Marius Zaliukas, but the Hearts captain was deceived by the flight of the ball and could do no more than glance it into the path of Russell. Failing to realise how much time he had, the United player sent a dipping shot over MacDonald’s bar.
Hearts: MacDonald, R McGowan, Webster, Zaliukas, McHattie, Stevenson, D McGowan (Taouil 72), Barr, Driver (Novikovas 83), Smith (Paterson 75), Sutton. Subs not used: Enckelman, Robinson, Holt, Carrick.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson, McLean, Gunning, Douglas, Skacel (Lacny 76), Flood, Rankin, Armstrong (Dow 85), Russell, Daly. Subs not used: Banks, Ryan, Millar, Gardyne, Petrie.