The hope that a new year might bring with it some fresh impetus for Hearts is looking increasingly forlorn after only two outings by Gary Locke’s beleaguered side.
SCORERS: PARTICK - Taylor 14′ Taylor-Sinclair 40′
The resilience shown on Thursday when responding to going behind against Hibernian could not be summoned again yesterday as the home team lost two cheap goals before half-time.
With so little firepower to call upon, it was hard to see how Hearts could mount a comeback, even when Thistle were reduced to ten men when nine minutes still remained, following Stuart Bannigan’s red card. Although a few jeers greeted referee Iain Brines’ interval whistle, there was a very muted response at the end. An air of resignation is now apparent, if it wasn’t already. With the gap at the bottom now stretched to 19 points, the home supporters are now preparing for the near certain fate of relegation. Acceptance was more in evidence yesterday than anger.
Everyone was aware of the significance of yesterday’s game. Even Ryan Stevenson had described it as a must win, and Ross County’s victory on Saturday had only intensified the need to take all three points if Hearts were to stage a miracle recovery from their present position at the bottom of the Premiership. Before yesterday’s game, Thistle were the nearest side in Hearts’ sights, meaning victory was paramount for the home team.
Given their scant resources, there was simply no opportunity to shake the team up following the exacting derby defeat on Thursday. Ryan Stevenson appealed for the fans to show some support to Jordan McGhee, whose lunge on Lewis Stevenson offered Hibs the chance to take the lead again from the penalty spot last week. The 17 year-old showed up well yesterday and could have – possibly should have – scored at the end.
David Smith kept his place after his goalscoring cameo at Easter Road while Stevenson continued as skipper due to the unavailability of Danny Wilson, whose bout of tonsillitis has struck at the worst possible time. Wilson’s absence was felt as early as the 14th minute when Thistle advanced down the middle via a long ball by Gabriel Piccolo that the diminutive Kallum Higginbotham was allowed to flick on. McGowan, deputising for Wilson in the middle of defence, was then too easily out-muscled by Lyle Taylor, who converted past Jamie MacDonald, despite the goalkeeper managing to get something on the ball.
Having begun the game in perky manner, Hearts were now required to find yet another response to going behind. While a familiar situation, it was nonetheless asking a lot of a team deprived of two of their most experienced players yesterday.
Not only was Wilson missing but so too was the suspended Jamie Hamill. It is too much to expect an already severely weakened team to bear this loss. Stevenson did his best in attack but as Hearts’ only experienced outfield player, perhaps he might have been better utilised in midfield, where Hearts toiled to stamp their authority. Stevenson did have one chance to equalise when the ball broke to him after Jamie Walker’s run into the box was thwarted. However, the skipper pulled his shot wide of the far post.
Hearts had further reason to rue this miss just a minute later when Thistle earned a corner on the far side. With just minutes to go until the interval, it was incumbent on the home team to at least take care of the basics, such as ensuring each Thistle player was marked. Their failure to do so was exposed in ruthless manner by the visitors. Aaron Taylor-Sinclair moved smartly to meet Higginbotham’s corner and moments later his flashing header was nestling in the corner of the net. It was a poor, poor goal to concede, and the dismay was still evident when the whistle sounded for half-time, resulting in a volley of jeers from some Hearts fans.
To the home players’ credit they were the better side in the second half. But as has been the case so often this season, the goals would just not come.
Misfortune continued to stalk Hearts as is so often the case with teams already down on their luck. Callum Tapping saw his deflected effort from 20 yards come back off the bar. Stevenson, meanwhile, stabbed a shot just wide. But Hearts’ limitations were again plain for all to see.
Thistle have themselves managed to kick-start their season after a run of ten games without a win. The recent 5-1 home reversal to Motherwell threatened to knock them off course completely, but here they diligently built on the improved performance against Celtic last week. Bannigan’s red card after two quick bookings, the latter for a lunge on Kevin McHattie, was a minor blight, but they still kept a clean sheet – helped by McGhee heading past a post at the end from Stevenson’s corner when he knew he should have got the ball on target, at the very least.