IT WAS all going so swimmingly. With autumn sunshine streaming through the gap between the Gorgie and Wheatfield stands and Hearts making pretty patterns on the pitch, everything seemed geared towards a first league win for Robbie Neilson’s side since the third week in August.
Even though several goalscoring opportunities were being missed, such was Hearts’ superiority it felt like only a matter of time until they added to Jamie Walker’s 40th-minute penalty strike.
But of course, football is a game that demands that chances are taken. Conrad Balatoni’s pile-driver from ten yards with 14 minutes left meant that, once again, this truth had to be acknowledged, even if some wanted to pin all the blame on a referee, John Beaton.
Refreshingly, Neilson, despite recent problems with officials, was not one of those looking for a convenient excuse. He agreed with the red card awarded to Gavin Reilly towards the end, after the striker foolishly kicked-out at fellow substitute Steven Smith.
Although admittedly overly fussy, Beaton was a long way from being why Hearts failed to clinch the win that looked theirs for the taking. Rarely can two points have dropped to the Tynecastle floor with such a sickening thud.
It was especially dismaying for the home fans to see a self-confessed Hearts supporter do the damage – as well as being a former Hearts player, Balatoni grew up a fan of the Tynecastle club after moving to Edinburgh from Leeds in childhood.
He initially endeared himself to his old friends at his first club by making an injudicious challenge on the excellent Osman Sow towards the end of the first half. No-one in the home stands was criticising Beaton when he immediately pointed to the spot. Walker impressively converted the award.
As news of Aberdeen’s collapse filtered through from Pittodrie, it looked set to be a perfect day for Hearts, who were now well-positioned to move to within five points of the league leaders. As Neilson was at pains to point out afterwards, Hearts have only themselves to blame for not doing so. Although the manager refused to single anyone out, Sam Nicholson was all but flogging himself when he came in to speak to reporters afterwards.
The 20-year-old midfielder has no need to be so harsh on himself – he did most to brighten up the occasion. One flick over his own shoulder and volley into the side-netting – the referee said goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald had touched the ball wide, most others were not so sure – was an exquisite piece of opportunism.
Nicholson bemoaned the “mental block” he seems to have against MacDonald, who was again inspired against his former club. Nicholson revealed he even found it hard to score against MacDonald in training when they were team-mates together. “He is always confident when it comes to making big saves,” said Nicholson. “One of my shots went straight to him – and he still managed to make it look like a great save. I don’t now how he managed that. It was like being back in training.”
Balatoni deserves credit for being in the right place at the right time to slam home an equaliser, after Hearts struggled to clear a free-kick. Asked if he expected the centre-half to be on hand to drive the ball into the net, MacDonald replied: “Did I nowt!”