HEARTS silenced their critics, after only gaining one point in their three previous fixtures, when they squeezed past Motherwell in a nervy performance which pulled them just behind Rangers at the top of the table.
However, they did finish off their visitors with a final flourish that sent out a message from Tynecastle to anyone doubting their intent.
A difficult fixture against Motherwell, who had only lost once in the league, at Ibrox, was not helped by the absence through injury of goalkeeper Gilles Rousset and playmaker Steve Fulton.
But, opening with a vigorous 4-3-3 formation, Hearts almost unlocked Motherwell after three minutes, when Stephane Adam almost caught out Mikko Kaven with a dipping shot.
Lee Makel supplied Jim Hamilton but, caught on his wrong foot, the striker screwed the chance to the right of the goal.
Meanwhile, with elder statesmen Pat Nevin and Brian McClair on the bench, it was up to tireless Owen Coyle to remind Hearts that the visitors also carried a punch and his snapshot header from a Steve MacMillan cross slipped just wide.
But the mark of Harri Kampman’s Motherwell side had been its solid back line and both full-backs, McMillan and Michel Doesburg, were keeping everything tight on the wings as both Hamilton and Neil McCann drifted wide and it was only when McCann nipped inside that things opened up.
The chinks were beginning to appear when Adam played a one-two with McCann, a move which only floundered when Kaven dived bravely to save at the Frenchman’s feet.
An over-eager approach and a touch of misfortune were pegging Hearts back every time they rode forward. Jamie McGowan just happened to be in the right place at the right time when Paul Richie’s effort from 12 yards cannoned off him.
Without Fulton, the Hearts midfield was getting caught in a rut with no-one prepared to float in long balls to turn Motherwell’s flat back four and put them on their back foot.
As long as everything was in front of them, they were relatively untroubled and as the first half drifted to a conclusion Motherwell made a couple of raids that almost proved costly, with first Coyle failing with a free header from McMillan’s cross, and then Ian Ross moving up from left midfield to crack the junction of post and bar from 20 yards.
By now, Simo Valakari and Rob Matthaei had the measure of Makel and Stephano Salvatori in the centre of midfield and Hearts’ best options seemed to be to get round the back, but Michels and Ross provided stubborn resistance in covering the full-backs.
In the 56th minute, Motherwell’s Nevin began his contribution when he replaced Michels, as coach Kampman obviously thought saw a possibility of taking the points as Hearts pushed up. However, Nevin’s role was a free one and immediately Motherwell’s attack took on an extra edge as he fed Matthaei a cross into the six-yard box which was desperately cleared by Naysmith.
Meanwhile, new signing from Ross County – Derek Adams – was sticking to his task with Coyle niggling the Hearts back line. The game looked as if it was drifting away from Hearts, but as the fluency slipped out of their open play, they eventually got their break from a set piece in the 69th minute.
Makel’s free kick from left to right was met by David Weir outjumping the Motherwell defence and catching Kaven off his line. Hearts now slipped into the groove. Jim Jefferies’ team always tended to perform better when the opposition came at them. But still, Roddie McKenzie in his role as Rousset’s deputy, was called on to prove his dependability, saving a close-range header by Ross.
But in the dying minutes, Hearts put a gloss on their victory with McCann scoring twice, first from a penalty in the 86th minute and then with a marvellous solo run two minutes into injury time.
Hearts: McKenzie, Pressley, Naysmith, Weir, Ritchie, Salvatori, Locke, Hamilton, Adam, Makel, McCann.