With next week’s Edinburgh derby looming into view, this win, the first away from home since the last time they visited Fir Park, was of tremendous importance to Hearts and manager Ian Cathro.
However, instead of toasting consecutive victories, Motherwell felt their visitors should have been licking their wounds, insisting the away side were able to leave Lanarkshire with three points thanks to a wrongful red card.
Eight minutes into the second half Carl McHugh was sent packing for a foul on Don Cowie. A game that hung in the balance quickly swung in favour of Hearts, who were able to take full advantage with goals from recent signings Alexandros Tziolis and Esmael Goncalves, who bagged a double.
There was no room for debate or discussion in the mind of Mark McGhee. The Motherwell boss watched replays of the incident before talking to the press. He then thundered into the media room at Fir Park and gave his response unprompted.
“I’ve just watched it over and over again. Never in a million years is it a sending off. It’s a joke. It’s a great tackle, he cleanly wins the ball. What can I say? It’s a ridiculous decision,” fumed McGhee. “It’s cost us the game. Even at 1-0 down with ten men we’re still the better team until we go 2-0 down. The score doesn’t reflect the game.
“100 per cent we’ll be appealing that. I think it’s less of a sending off than Scott McDonald’s [against Rangers last week]. What’s it all about? It’s hugely frustrating.”
Despite missing the suspended McDonald, Motherwell gave a good account of themselves, even with ten men, until they ran out of steam in the closing stages. Responding to the Australian’s absence, the hosts went with a 3-5-2 system that enabled them to keep Hearts’ attack relatively quiet until the red card.
Hearts, with their tails up after the emphatic win over Rangers in midweek, enjoyed the majority of the possession in the first half, but could only muster a couple of opportunities. Goncalves flashed an early drive wide of goal, while Jamie Walker hit the side netting from inside the penalty area.
It enabled the hosts to grow in confidence and they had two efforts as the half drew to a close. Young Hearts stopper Jack Hamilton, similar to his error in the Rangers game, flapped unconvincingly at a corner. Lionel Ainsworth’s follow-up from 10 yards was partially blocked, allowing Hearts to clear.
Just a couple of minutes later Louis Moult went close with what could have been the controversial talking point of the match on another day. The award of a free-kick 20 yards from goal was granted after Moult and Ainsworth tripped each other, which referee Andrew Dallas incorrectly judged to be a foul by Malaury Martin, who was booked. Moult fired the resulting set-piece just wide.
Hearts withdrew Bjorn Johnsen for recent signing Choulay at half-time and switched to a 4-3-3. Before the tactical change could have much influence on the game, McHugh lunged into the 50-50 with Cowie. As McGhee stated, the midfielder got plenty of the ball, but McHugh’s follow through caught Cowie just above the ankle. It was very similar to the challenge by McDonald last week, and that of Rangers’ Rob Kiernan in the same game. It was a justifiable red card, but Motherwell can rightly condemn inconsistency in the rules as all three decisions went against them.
It took just six minutes for Hearts to make the advantage count. Tziolis was granted too much space to shoot from 25 yards and his effort took a huge deflection off Keith Lasley, looping up and over keeper Craig Samson. Lasley almost atoned for the piece of misfortune a short time later with a first-time volley that inched just wide.
Though Motherwell applied some pressure, the one player who looked most likely to score next was Goncalves. Having passed up a couple of good chances, the Portuguese striker opened his Hearts account after finishing a textbook counter-attack. Though he would squander another one-on-one, Goncalves sealed the points when he was on hand to convert Choulay’s low cross.