THERE are two ways of looking at Hearts’ results at this stage of the season. You can regard them from the perspective either of a team fighting to stay in the Premiership, or of one that is already relegated and preparing for life in the Championship.
Hearts 0-1 Motherwell
Scorer: Sutton (40)
In the former case, this defeat was yet another blow to Gary Locke’s already bruised and battered team, whose hopes took a further knock with the news that injuries to Jamie Walker and Kevin McHattie could sideline them in the coming weeks. From the latter point of view, however, this was a performance that generated some realistic optimism about next season.
The official line from the club is that no-one will accept the inevitability of relegation at present. Midfielder Scott Robinson, who had one of his best games of the season, rehearsed that argument afterwards. “It’s going to take a miracle to turn this round,” he said. “But until it’s mathematically impossible we’ll keep fighting and giving our all.”
Even so, Hearts are now so far detached at the bottom – 20 points, as a result of this defeat and Ross County’s draw with Partick Thistle – that the rest of the division can afford to discount them. If the Premiership were the solar system, they would be somewhere beyond Pluto.
In reality, they are between divisions, in a waiting room of their own. Even at the start of the season, there were two factors which needed to happen if they were to have any real prospect of beating the drop: another club would have to experience severe financial difficulties, and Hearts themselves would have to be out of administration in time to sign players during the current transfer window. Neither has happened, and although the club’s representatives will meet the authorities today in a bid to have their signing ban relaxed, any leniency will surely be minimal.
Yet, gloomy as that sounds, there are clear signs that a modest recovery has begun. The players are more composed, the supporters less anxious, now that demotion seems inescapable.
Everything is still dependent on the Foundation of Hearts completing their takeover in the next few months, but provided that happens, it is obvious that Locke already has the basis of a decent Championship squad. The players continue to make mistakes that more experienced sides would avoid, but they are showing a growing understanding, and a spirit that was conspicuous by its absence in some of their games towards the end of last year.
Motherwell were the better team, and Lionel Ainsworth alone could have put the game beyond Hearts long before the end, particularly early in the second half when an excellent ball from Iain Vigurs put him through on Jamie MacDonald. But it would not have been wholly unjust had the home side snatched a late equaliser, as they too carved out a number of decent chances that on another day would have ended up in the back of the net.
The best of those came in stoppage time, when a cross fell awkwardly between the feet of Jamie Hamill. A foot either side of him, and the midfielder could have got a shot away. As it was, he needed two or three touches before shooting, allowing the defence to close down his effort.
The blocking of Hamill’s shot provoked a penalty claim from the home team – the third of the half – but none was clear-cut. Other good openings fizzled out when crosses either failed to get past the first man or were too high and deep; in the latter case, Motherwell defenders Stephen McManus and Shaun Hutchinson dealt with them comfortably.
The Hearts defence, poorly organised in many matches, was itself a lot more comfortable for most of this game, even though captain Danny Wilson was still absent following tonsillitis. Even when McHattie was forced off, the reorganisation worked well, as Callum Paterson slotted in efficiently to his old position of right-back.
In the end, though, it was a moment of hesitation in defence five minutes before half-time that cost Hearts the points. Brad McKay seemed unsure what to do to prevent a Vigurs pass from reaching John Sutton, and as MacDonald rushed out to close him down, the former Hearts striker found the net from a tight angle on the left, Dylan McGowan being unable to do anything other than get the last touch on the ball before it crossed the line.
“I felt we played really well but we were unlucky,” Robinson summed up. “We’re definitely not running short on confidence. We are all together but we are just not getting the breaks. If were totally lacking in confidence, Motherwell would be coming here and winning 3-0 or 4-0. But I felt we should have got a draw. You could see the effort and commitment that the boys put in today. We will keep fighting for the jerseys.
“You’ve got to be a good professional. We also can’t let the fans down – they’ve been brilliant this season, turning up week in week out. We want to start getting a few wins for them. We’ve also got a massive [League Cup] semi-final coming up, and if we can win that and reach another final then it won’t be the worst season in the world.”