THE early stages of the season, when a spirited Hearts team could surprise more experienced opposition, feels like years, not months, ago.
Scorers: Kilmarnock - Boyd (13, 48), Johnston (40), McKenzie (90)
Bookings: Hearts - Hamill, McKay, King, Walker; Kilmarnock - Pascali, Johnston
Everyone, it seems, knows how to play against them now: attack them relentlessly, and at speed, and the goals will come.
If there was no disgrace in the seven-goal defeat by Celtic at the start of this month, given the quality with which the champions played, yesterday’s defeat – their fourth in a row in the Premiership – was harder to explain away. Taking nothing away from the ability shown by Kris Boyd and Chris Johnston, this was an incoherent performance by Hearts, in which even their more gifted players appeared to have little idea about how to get back on terms once they had gone behind.
First-half goals by Boyd and Johnston put Kilmarnock in control, and any life left in the contest was killed off when Boyd scored his second three minutes into the second half. In truth, even before Boyd claimed his first goal, the prospect of a home win had seemed remote.
Kilmarnock had gone into the attack immediately in search of an early lead, and they had a couple of half chances in the opening ten minutes, notably a shot by Sean Clohessy that was blocked by Danny Wilson.
The captain’s timely intervention was a credit to his reading of the game, but, worryingly from the home team’s point of view, it was only required because his team-mates had been all too easily cut out by a quick couple of passes from left to right.
The ease with which that had happened encouraged the visitors to persist in their attacking efforts, and they took the lead after a dozen minutes with a simple move.
Johnston’s corner from the left was blocked, but Manuel Pascali succeeded in returning the ball to the winger. Johnston drove his cross towards the far post, and Boyd was there to head past a helpless Jamie MacDonald.
The scorer could have doubled his tally just two minutes later after he somehow broke free ten yards out, but MacDonald got down well to block his hurried shot. Hearts were on the ropes at that point, but Callum Tapping came close to bringing relief when he broke free down the left and chipped on to the roof of Craig Samson’s net.
The beleaguered home defence was given a quick break midway through the half when one of the assistant referees had to leave the pitch, having injured an ankle according to the public-address system. Play was held up for five minutes until the fourth official could take over.
Gary Locke used the break to adjust his line-up, moving Jamie Hamill from right-back to midfield in a positional swap with Dylan McGowan, apparently in a bid to deal with the threat of Johnston. If so, it was soon shown not to work.
Hearts did play significantly better for a short time after that, and with almost 40 minutes gone a Jamie Walker shot was saved by Samson’s knees. But just as the home team looked to have weathered the storm, Johnston popped up with a
superb strike. Taking possession some 25 yards out on the left, the winger eased past McGowan, and then, seeing that MacDonald was unsighted by Brad McKay, curled a right-foot shot into the far corner of the net.
Locke had listed six substitutes – one more than had been chosen for the bench at Celtic five days earlier – and he put two on for the second half. Nothing changed, however, and Kilmarnock reasserted their dominance within three minutes.
Again they all too easily tore the Hearts defence apart, and a dummy by Johnston helped the ball reach Boyd, who scored with a low shot from the left of the six-yard box.
Boyd should have completed his hat-trick soon after that when a Kevin McHattie slip allowed Clohessy to pass to him, but he snatched at his shot and sent it over the bar.
The striker had another chance moments later from an intelligent ball by Rory McKenzie, but again sent his shot too high after turning McKay inside out.
With nothing to lose, Hearts played some of their most enterprising football after that, but it was to no avail, and it was Kilmarnock who had the last word when McKenzie scored with a well-placed shot from the edge of the box to make it four.
Hearts: MacDonald, Hamill, McKay, Wilson, McHattie, Smith (B King 46), McGowan, Tapping (Carrick 83), A King (Robinson 46), Walker, Paterson. Subs not used: Hamilton, S Nicholson, McGhee.
Kilmarnock: Samson, Clohessy, Ashcroft, Pascali (McKeown 77), Tesselaar, Irvine, McKenzie, Slater, Gardyne (Winchester 75), Johnston, Boyd (Muirhead 80). Subs not used: Reguero, Clingan, B Nicholson, Gros.