HEARTS are entitled to feel Willie Collum was redressing the balance by red carding Ryan Stevenson against Dundee United. Saying so publicly would be akin to lobbing a hand grenade into the refereeing department at Hampden Park. That was, however, certainly on the minds of Tynecastle officials as they departed Tannadice on Saturday evening.
Collum did not punish Stevenson for his lunge at James McPake in last month’s Edinburgh derby. The midfielder received a retrospective two-game suspension from the Scottish Football Association for the offence – evidence from the governing body that they believed Collum had missed a serious offence. By sending Stevenson off on Saturday for a tackle that merited a caution at most, the referee left himself open to claims of victimisation, even if no-one wanted to stick their neck out and say so.
The midfielder slid in to challenge Gary Mackay-Steven on the halfway line after 25 minutes. His right foot was outstretched, his left tucked in under his backside. Studs were showing, as they are in any sliding tackle, but there was no hint of malice and it appeared to be a straightforward foul. Yet within seconds Collum brandished a straight red card. Stevenson had to be restrained by Dundee United players as he tried to confront Collum and left the field with a shout towards the Hearts dugout which stated “that was for last time”.
“According to Ryan, the lad (Mackay-Steven) said he never touched him,” explained John McGlynn, the Hearts manager. “The referee said that’s the rule book and obviously he has to go by the rule book. If you go into a tackle on the ground, you can hardly go in with your studs down the way. So basically it means you can’t actually go to ground at all now. Try going to ground with your foot flat and you’ll do damage to yourself because your studs will catch the ground. It’s impossible to tackle on the ground now.”
Stevenson was dismissed with Hearts 1-0 down and having already lost captain Marius Zaliukas, right, to injury. He landed awkwardly and went over on his ankle following a barge from Russell and was replaced by Darren Barr. The extent of the injury is not yet known, with doctors having to wait for swelling to reduce before an accurate diagnosis can be given, but he left the dugout at full time on crutches.
It was an afternoon when nothing went the visitors’ way. Dundee United’s more experienced players utilised the advantage of an extra man well and moved the ball crisply around midfield. They led through Russell’s excellent low finish after two minutes, then scored again on 62 minutes when Willo Flood converted from Russell’s precise through ball. Michael Ngoo hit the crossbar twice before lashing his third goal in four games for Hearts, but the ten men succumbed to a late sucker punch when substitute Michael Gardyne scored United’s third.
McGlynn named an unchanged team including five teenagers in his starting line-up. However, the Riccarton academy pupils showed commendable discipline after Stevenson’s dismissal. They arranged themselves in a 4-4-1 formation, became difficult to break down and eventually tired in a second half which involved a lot of chasing. The biggest positive for McGlynn was the performance of Ngoo, whose accurate shooting makes him a constant danger. “The sending off killed the game because for 25 minutes it was a very good game,” said McGlynn. “We were a goal behind, we lost Marius Zaliukas and then we went down to ten men. That would be a difficult situation for the most experienced team, and we’re not an experienced team. There was plenty time to get back into it but, with ten men against a good side it was a difficult task.”
United were certainly worth their victory in Jackie McNamara’s first league match as manager. They carry a potent threat in Russell, a direct winger in Mackay-Steven and two tempo-dictating midfielders in Flood and John Rankin. Mackay-Steven in particular gave 19-year-old Fraser Mullen his most difficult afternoon to date at senior level. Indeed, three Hearts players were booked during the 90 minutes – Mullen, Andy Webster and Danny Wilson – all for impeding Mackay-Steven as he went past them.
In two matches in charge, McNamara has presided over two convincing wins. Yet even he admitted Stevenson’s dismissal was to the game’s detriment. “I think the sending off killed the game a bit for both teams. I thought he (Stevenson) came in and caught him (Mackay-Steven), but I don’t know how high he was off the ground. Willie has deemed it a straight red, which is harsh.
“It helped us more because we had 11 men against ten but for the spectacle of the game it meant Hearts sat in and tried to hold on to everything.”