Aberdeen will leave for Dubai in good spirits after a win that damages Hearts’ chances of finishing above Derek McInnes’ side.
They avoided travelling for their winter break with the unwanted baggage of regret after Jonny Hayes made his side’s dominance count for something with his 50th career goal. Leaving Tynecastle cursing missed chances is a familiar feeling for Aberdeen, and they looked set to endure another frustrating evening.
No one could say they were not worth the win. But they were again finding the Tynecastle side the toughest of nuts to crack until Hayes’ 66th-minute strike. They were also reliant on a fine save from Joe Lewis in the closing minutes after Jamie Walker’s shot.
Hearts, meanwhile, must endure a fortnight when they are left to reflect on a new era under new head coach Ian Cathro that has been slightly underwhelming so far. There was little evidence of the free-flowing football from Tuesday night’s 4-0 win over Kilmarnock on evidence here as Hearts fell six points behind Aberdeen, who have played one match fewer.
It was one-way traffic for much of the match, although there was a flurry of activity from Hearts at the end, with Don Cowie, stretchered off at Dens a week ago, left on the ground again after being injured while coming close with a header in time added on.
Aberdeen should have won more comfortably after spurning several chances, particularly in the first half. Mark Reynolds’ header at the back post flashed narrowly wide of Jack Hamilton’s far post. But the goalkeeper had to work to prevent Aberdeen’s next chance from going in when diving to his left to block Hayes’ header after 26 minutes.
The visitors were seeking to take advantage of the alteration Hearts wished they didn’t have to make. It was immediately obvious how Callum Paterson’s absence because of a serious knee injury robbed the home side of not just a defensive bulwark, but also an attacking threat.
Hearts were quickly learning how to live without such a valuable player – and the early signs are not encouraging for the home fans. Liam Smith switched to right-back and Faycal Rherras came in at left-back. Krystian Nowak patrolled the area in front of the back four, initially to good effect. But the Pole was left wanting at the winner. Aberdeen manager McInnes had clearly marked out Hearts’ right-back area as being potentially rewarding for his side. Smith was charged with handling perhaps Scottish football’s trickiest wide player in Hayes.
The game burned slowly rather than ignited in its initial stages – and that’s being kind. Then referee Willie Collum briefly took centre stage. He was correct in awarding a foul after Ash Taylor’s tug on Bjorn Johnsen and then booking the Aberdeen defender.
But the decision provoked scorn from all sides of the ground – Hearts fans wanted a red card, while the visiting supporters were angry he’d blown for a foul at all. But the incident did at least generate some spark.
Walker’s free-kick was not one of his finest, however, Lewis gathering comfortably. The hope that a contentious moment might give the game a kick-start proved a forlorn one. Hearts continued to struggle for rhythm while Aberdeen were frustrated in their attempts to make the most of their surprising level of dominance.
A combination of poor finishing, good goalkeeping and ill fortune kept the game scoreless at half-time. Aberdeen should really have been one or two goals in front, Hamilton denying Niall McGinn at the back post after another cross from the left and Graeme Shinnie’s shot on the turn from 20 yards then bashed back off a post. Hearts, for their part, looked toothless up front and were struggling to muster a shot on goal. Walker’s fresh air swipe summed things up.
It didn’t get much better in the second half either. Aberdeen were still the stronger team, desperate to give the away supporters something to cheer. But before Hayes struck they were creating fewer chances than in the first-half. An Adam Rooney header drifted over and a timely tackle from Igor Rossi denied the same player as he was in the process of shooting.
If a player seemed likely to rise above the mediocrity, it was Hayes, and it was his desire, his willingness to strain every sinew, that accounted for his sixth goal of the season, sliding in at the far post to meet McGinn’s equally accomplished cross from the right.
Walker nearly claimed an unlikely point for Hearts, with 18-year-old Rory Currie now on to supplement their attacking options, with a powerful shot on the turn that Lewis was equal to. But Aberdeen got the win their efforts deserved.