Hearts were thwarted in their bid to regain ground on Aberdeen and Rangers in the race to be best of the rest in the Premiership this season but left Hamilton relieved to take a point from a tumultuous contest in which they trailed 3-1 with less than 20 minutes remaining.
Callum Paterson’s 86th-minute goal saved the day for Robbie Neilson’s side who had opened the scoring through Jamie Walker after just eight minutes, prompting an impressive response from Hamilton in which Rakish Bingham grabbed his first goals for the club.
The draw leaves Hearts three points behind third-placed Rangers, while Martin Canning’s men edge just above Partick Thistle into tenth spot at the other end of the table.
Walker’s early breakthrough was a reward for the greater aggression and enterprise Hearts displayed in the opening exchanges. They were eager to get on the front foot immediately and carved out the first sight of goal when Tony Watt burst through the middle in the fourth minute.
The striker’s shot was partially blocked by Dan Seaborne, the Accies defender’s intervention taking the pace off the ball and ensuring a fairly comfortable save for Gary Woods.
But the Hamilton keeper was powerless to prevent Walker’s stunning opener four minutes later. Bjorn Johnsen foraged his way into space on the left and delivered a dangerous cross which Watt contested with Georgios Sarris.
The defender managed to win the aerial duel but his attempted clearance fell invitingly into the path of Walker on the edge of the penalty area. The winger did not break stride as he lashed an unstoppable half-volley high beyond Woods’ left hand into the roof of the net.
Walker, who scored twice in Hearts’ 3-1 win over Hamilton at Tynecastle in September, was understandably brimming with confidence and after pouncing on some sloppy play in midfield by the hosts, he tried his luck from distance again with his effort this time sliding just wide of Woods’ right-hand post.
Accies were struggling to gain a foothold in the contest but they took encouragement from a mix-up at the back by Hearts which saw Jack Hamilton forced to sprint from his line as Gramoz Kurtaj pounced on John Souttar’s error.
Kurtaj eluded the Hearts keeper and crossed the ball to Bingham whose shot was cleared off the line by Souttar.
Hamilton suddenly had some attacking momentum and it led to their 24th-minute equaliser. Prince Buaben was penalised for a clumsy challenge on Dougie Imrie some 25 yards from goal and Ali Crawford stepped forward to curl a superb right-footed free-kick beyond the defensive wall and past Hamilton’s right hand into the corner of the net.
With Accies now the more vibrant side, Crawford should have doubled his tally and given them the lead five minutes later when Kurtaj sent him racing clear on goal. But with only the exposed Hamilton to beat, Crawford’s shot lacked conviction and was easily blocked by the keeper.
Play became increasingly error-strewn on both sides as half-time approached but it was Hearts who came closest to taking a lead before the interval when Johnson saw a close-range header from a Buaben cross well saved by Woods.
The value of that contribution from the Hamilton keeper was enhanced when his team went 2-1 ahead just 13 seconds into the second half. From the kick-off by Accies, no Hearts player was able to touch the ball as Crawford’s pass sent Bingham racing through the middle of a static defence. The English striker coolly slotted a firm shot beyond Hamilton from around 12 yards.
Liam Smith tried to produce a rapid response from Hearts, sending a dipping shot from 25 yards narrowly over, then Alim Ozturk came close to grabbing an equaliser when his effort from close range was instinctively saved by Woods.
But the strong impression that the tide had now turned in Hamilton’s favour was reinforced by Bingham’s second goal to make it 3-1 in the 68th minute. Collecting a through ball from Massimo Donati, he raced beyond the Hearts defence and drove a fierce shot beyond Hamilton from a tight angle on the left of penalty area.
That was enough to prompt some of the travelling fans to head for the exits but their team were not about to give up the ghost so readily. Hearts pulled themselves back into contention from the penalty spot five minutes later.
Don Cowie went down under Seaborne’s challenge and Walker stepped up to beat Woods with the kick, despite the keeper guessing correctly and getting a hand to the ball.
Accies should have restored their two-goal cushion in the 78th minute when Kurtaj headed wastefully wide from close range after being picked out by Crawford’s cross. Walker was then desperately unlucky not to complete a hat-trick at the other end when his curling right-foot shot from 22 yards struck Woods’ left-hand post.
But Hearts were rewarded for their persistence when Paterson rifled home their late leveller, bursting into space in the centre of the penalty area to latch on to Perry Kitchen’s pass and salvage a point.