HEARTS lost their 100 per cent record against a determined Dumbarton, but still went back to the top of the Championship by a single point over Rangers. Their slick early season form deserted them, however, in the face of a gritty show by the Sons.
“We worked hard, we kept a clean sheet and we’re still top of the league,” said manager Robbie Neilson afterwards, but his face could not hide his disappointment at dropping two points.
Given the recent form of both teams, this match was expected to be as one-sided as the BetButler Stadium.
Hearts were warm favourites, but Dumbarton had other ideas, and manager Ian Murray had their defence very well organised, as might be expected from the former Hibs captain.
“A few of our guys tired at the end but overall there was not too much between the teams,” said Murray afterwards.
That’s probably a slightly biased assessment – Hearts should have won as they had the better players and more of the play overall. Curiously, however, they seemed hesitant and unsure at times, the sticky surface in the bright sunshine perhaps not being conducive to their normal passing game – that and the fact that their players hit some very aimless passes throughout.
Dumbarton were solid at the back and pressed the visitors’ midfield where the likes of Jason Holt and Billy King were not firing on all cylinders, while behind them, Morgaro Gomis was missing his partner, the suspended Prince Buaben, though he ably filled the role of holding midfielder by himself.
Up front Osman Sow and James Keatings failed to bond, the former having one of his off days, and the latter eventually substituted.
Hearts were also not helped by a 12th minute injury to Kevin McHattie who was replaced by Adam Eckersley.
Dumbarton’s tactics were clear early on – defend in depth and fire the ball up to big target man, the former Hibee Colin Nish. Andy Graham was particularly impressive in the way he bossed the back four, and that defensive solidity was the key to the home performance.
Neither side could grab the early ascendancy, nor did they create the semblance of a serious chance in the first quarter.
The first real opportunity came after 23 minutes when Eckersley’s long cross was met by Keatings whose header curled over the bar.
Dumbarton came into the match and after Chris Kane shot narrowly past, Nish beat Danny Wilson and Alim Ozturk in the air but his header was well held by the returning Neil Alexander in the Hearts goal.
The best chance of the match fell to Sow after 37 minutes, Danny Rogers parrying Holt’s shot to the big Swedish striker who could only shoot straight back at the home goalkeeper.
Hearts were still fairly insipid as Dumbarton hustled and bustled and Ozturk showed their frustration by getting booked for protesting too much. Keatings then threw away an overlap by shooting himself, the ball going well wide. The tricky Sam Nicholson then had a shot from distance, but Rogers got down well to save comfortably.
After a double substitution, Soufian El Hassnaoui and Jamie Walker coming on for Keatings and King, Hearts laid siege to Dumbarton’s goal but could not force a way through.
Instead, as the match wore on, the home side had the confidence to mount a few attacks of their own, and had substitute Archie Campbell’s low cross to Kane not bobbled in front of the attacker, he could not have missed from five yards out.
Showing exemplary fitness for part-timers, Dumbarton never lost their shape, but Hearts were looking for the win. Holt shot high before Jordan McGhee fired one just over from 25 yards, and then Walker was put in by Nicholson for a shot that was beaten away by Rogers.
In injury time, Nicholson’s header came back off the bar and then McGhee injured himself taking a throw-in so that the visitors finished with ten men – it was that kind of day for Hearts.