Ian Cathro was mugged in his hometown on a dismal night for Hearts. The new head coach was seeking some succour and looked to have found it as Hearts took a commanding two-goal lead.
But a first win since succeeding Robbie Neilson continues to prove elusive for Cathro, who saw his side floored by Marcus Haber’s winner in the nine minutes of time added on. While hardly satisfying, a draw would have been better than the dismaying defeat he was forced to explain afterwards.
The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York crackled across the speakers when referee Kevin Clancy finally blew his whistle after the extended period of injury time. This, certainly, was a Christmas miracle of sorts for Dundee fans, who were filled with something other than seasonal cheer when they booed their side off at half-time.
Callum Paterson’s header three minutes into the second half looked to have secured the points for the visitors after Jamie Walker’s early opener from the penalty spot. But goals from Darren O’Dea and Paul McGowan, bookending a serious injury to Don Cowie, seemed set to earn Dundee an unlikely point. However, the home side were not content with this, Haber rising to head home the winner in the 93rd minute from Tom Hateley’s free-kick.
The away fans were happier singing odes to Cathro rather than seasonal carols during the first half, which seemed a noisy affirmation of their faith in the young head coach.
Goals at the start of each half were the least Hearts deserved and looked set to have them on easy street. But Dundee pulled one back through O’Dea against the run of play and then Hearts suffered another blow when Cowie was stretchered off after a worryingly long period of treatment following a collision with Dundee keeper Scott Bain and defender Kostadin Gadzhalov.
Dundee threatened to be overrun in the opening minutes – and this was over and above losing the opening goal after just a couple of minutes. Walker, who slotted home the penalty from which Hearts took the lead, also hit the post in a torrid opening spell for the hosts.
To be fair to Bain, he tipped the ball onto the upright after Walker surged into the box. But he was the only one excelling for Dundee. And he could do little about the penalty that Walker struck low and hard to the keeper’s left after Kevin Gomis had upended the midfielder in the box following a neat flick through from Bjorn Johnsen.
The swirling wind was not making life easy for either team. But Hearts were making by far a better fist of the conditions although neither side could have any complaints about the pitch, which was as immaculate as ever.
Polish defender Krystian Nowak, making his debut for the visitors, was able to break himself in gently. Dundee were offering little threat save for an angled shot from Craig Wighton that bounced past Jack Hamilton’s far post.
But play took place mostly in the Dundee half. Hearts, with Arnaud Djoum playing off Johnsen, were out-muscling, out-thinking and out-playing the home team. While the weather was a mitigating factor, it was still a rum display from a side who knew they could travel a lot of ground in terms of moving up the league by picking up a win. They are now in seventh place after their unlikely second-half comeback.
Except for a brief spell midway through the opening half, Dundee were second to nearly everything. Wighton did begin to fare better for Dundee – his cut back was swept high over the bar by James Vincent. These, at least, amounted to signs of life from Dundee. Hateley also fired high over for the home team.
If Hearts felt any frustration, it was that they were not going in at half-time three or four goals up. Few could argue that they should not have done so.
Dundee had their keeper to thank. Bain stopped a strong header from an unmarked Paterson on the line and dealt more comfortably with a shot from John Souttar, whose surge from the back underlined just how much Hearts were having things their own way.
But perhaps the moment Hearts rued most was when Walker, otherwise excellent, failed to gather a through ball that had cut Dundee open once again. A better touch and he would have been able to round Bain, who had darted to the edge of his area and was relieved to be able to gather the loose ball.
This was one of several reasons why Dundee were fortunate to be going in only one goal down at the interval. But the goal that looked set to finish them off came as quickly after the re-start as Walker’s opener had arrived.
Dundee made a change in defence, Julen Extabeguren replacing Gomis. But it was the same old story as an unmarked Paterson met Cowie’s free kick after Hateley’s foul on the goalscorer. Paterson truly was proving a thorn in Dundee’s side.
But the home side glimpsed a way back into the game after 53 minutes following O’Dea’s strong finish into the corner after McGowan, who had just come on for Mark O’Hara, chipped into the box. If the goal seemed an unlikely one for Dundee, so too was the goalscorer.
The injury to Cowie seemed to rob the visitors of more than just an influential player, it seemed to serve to disrupt their rhythm. Robbie Muirhead replaced Cowie after a stoppage of fully five minutes. Dundee grabbed their equaliser just a minute later after a drive into the box from Vincent, whose decision to pass to McGowan rather than shoot himself was vindicated when his team-mate gleefully slipped the ball under Hamilton.
Remarkably, Dundee had already wasted a clear opportunity before conjuring a dramatic injury-time winner, Wighton heading tamely into Hamilton’s hands after a hanging cross from Cammy Kerr. But Haber’s powerful header, which might have taken a nick off Souttar, gave Dundee fans the early Christmas present they’d had no right to expect at half-time.