EVERYBODY likes a challenge. The bigger, the better, in some cases. If nothing is expected, neither is there anything to fear. All of which explains why Hearts are deriving a perverse, almost masochistic, pleasure from the mission they are on this season.
Hearts 0-0 Dundee United
Referee: S McLean
There they were at Tynecastle on Saturday, collecting their eighth point of the campaign, only to find that they are still on minus seven, cast adrift from the rest of the Scottish Premiership, including second-bottom St Mirren whose best – make that only –result of the season has been a draw at home to Kilmarnock.
Jamie MacDonald, the Hearts goalkeeper, would be excused were he demoralised by their thankless predicament, born of a 15-point handicap, a transfer embargo and the fact that, every other week, they seem to be held back by questionable refereeing. This time they were aggrieved by the decision to disallow Dylan McGowan’s first-half “goal”.
MacDonald, though, isn’t just keeping his head up, he is loving every minute. Not only have he and his team-mates been given a unique opportunity to pull off a remarkable achievement, they are privileged to find themselves on a journey full of emotion, defiance and the humbling support of their fans.
“As bad as the situation is, it’s actually great,” says MacDonald. “There is a right togetherness between everybody – fans, players, backroom staff. The atmosphere for all our home games has been great. For the away games as well, the fans have come in numbers. We’re very appreciative of that. Obviously it would be better if we hadn’t had minus 15 at the start of the season, but it’s nice to be a part of.”
Nice? Well, you know what he means. After this entertaining scoreless draw, which ended Hearts’ run of three straight league defeats, they are relishing a visit on Saturday from none other than St Mirren. It is a huge opportunity for Gary Locke’s side, even if MacDonald tries to pretend otherwise.
“Every game is huge for us. It doesn’t matter who it is. St Mirren are the closest team to us, but our aim right now is just to get to zero as quickly as possible. When we get to zero, we can re-evaluate our goals and who we can target. That’s four [consecutive] league games that we’ve not won so it would be good to get three points. It would be massive to us.”
To complicate matters, St Mirren have two games in hand, one of which is against Aberdeen this evening. While the game will be broadcast live on television, MacDonald insists that he will not be sitting through every minute, chewing his fingernails. Even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t be allowed.
“The missus won’t let me. I think Corrie is on at the same time. But, yes, you always look out for results. It’s part and parcel of football. You want to see how everybody else is doing. I’m sure at some point, if she goes to the toilet or something, I’ll be able to steal the control for five minutes.”
Hearts are disappointed that they could not put even more pressure on St Mirren. While United played the better football at Tynecastle, particularly in the first half, the home side were forceful, threatening at set-pieces and unfortunate not to be awarded a goal seven minutes before the interval.
In a tactic that repeatedly troubled their opponents, Callum Paterson delivered a long throw, which Radoslaw Cierzniak failed to deal with at the front post. All the goalkeeper could do was help the ball on its way, allowing McGowan to convert from inside the six-yard box.
Steven McLean, the referee, did not appear to have spotted an infringement but, when the standside assistant raised his flag and signalled that there had been a push on the goalkeeper, a free kick was awarded to United. The suspicion was that Cierzniak had already lost control of the situation when he decided to make the most of an innocuous challenge. “I thought the ’keeper got caught under the ball,” said MacDonald. “I didn’t see much wrong with it. But don’t get me wrong. If it was the other way about…”
United had a goal of their own chalked off when David Goodwillie was adjudged to have committed a foul in the build-up to Nadir Ciftci’s calm finish. The latter also came close late in the match when he clipped the left-hand post after a cross by Stuart Armstrong. “Some good chances have gone amiss, so we’re looking at it as two points dropped,” said Armstrong, more or less echoing the view of his opponents.