Hearts hold lead for six minutes over Motherwell

Shaun Hutchison manages to rise above the Hearts' defence to score Motherwell's winner at Fir Park on Saturday  Picture: SNS
Shaun Hutchison manages to rise above the Hearts' defence to score Motherwell's winner at Fir Park on Saturday Picture: SNS
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Having been condemned to start from a long way behind their rivals, Hearts will know that they must find a way of holding on to a lead on the rare occasions they have one. Here again they fell in agonising fashion after going ahead through Ryan Stevenson.

Given how desperately they had toiled to keep Motherwell out, and how thrilled they were to then take an unexpected lead, the visitors did not need a young substitute scoring an inspired equaliser with his first touch of the ball.

Craig Moore’s stunning strike gave Motherwell a timely boost just six ­minutes after Stevenson had opened the scoring. It also summed up Hearts’ recent spell as they wrestle with a ­proliferation of problems.

An ankle ligament injury sustained by striker Callum Paterson early in the second half on Saturday is just another setback for manager Gary Locke to have to deal with. He must also seek to find a way to start making up lost ground on the teams directly above them.

A poor run of results means Hearts are faced with the threat of slipping as many as 16 points from safety against Kilmarnock this weekend, which is worse than the position they were in at the start of the season. The task of arresting this current slump is hardly made any easier by the severely limited options Locke has at his disposal.

While the circumstances were not quite so deflating, the late loss of a ­winner on Saturday drew comparisons with Hearts’ defeat last month by Ross County, when the Tyncastle side also had a one-goal lead overturned, though that calamity really did come in the dying seconds.

One point from 18 is relegation form even without a 15-point deduction and goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald knows things have to change – and quickly.

The results elsewhere at the weekend only helped to worsen Hearts’ situation. Both Kilmarnock and St ­Mirren, their nearest rivals at the bottom, claimed victories, making Hearts’ clash with ­Kilmarnock at Rugby Park on ­Saturday one of those rarest of things – a ­relegation crunch match in October.

Understandably, MacDonald sought to avoid becoming a hostage to fortune when asked to contemplate the clash. Of course, he had to concede that it is a huge game. Whether Hearts’ Premiership fate rests on it, he was not so sure.

“Teams are starting to pull away from us now and we need to rein them in again,” he said. “Every game is a big game for us this year but Kilmarnock this week is a game that, realistically, we can’t afford to lose.

“It wouldn’t be the end of the world if we did get beat because there’s a lot of football to go, but psychologically it is huge.

“We’re on a bad run,” he added, before referencing the defeat by St Mirren earlier this month, which was viewed as Hearts’ opportunity to put pressure on those above them. “We let ourselves down in the St Mirren game, but in other matches we have competed and just been a bit unfortunate.

“We are shooting ourselves in the foot at the moment and it’s something that we need to rectify quickly,” he added. “There are still 28 games to go. If there were only eight then we would be panicking.

“There’s still a long way to go but we need to start winning, even if it’s just every other game like we were at the start.”

What had been a poor match finally ignited on the stroke of half-time. This is when Motherwell goalkeeper ­Gunnar Neilson, who was making his first league start, made a fine double save from Jamie Walker and David Smith.

The Faroese player will hope that his performance here helps him establish his place in the side.

Regular No 1 Lee Hollis could be out for another fortnight because of injury so Neilson should at least be given a ­second successive game in goals. Both his appearances so far this season – against Kuban Krasnodar in the Europa League qualifiers and Livingston in the League Cup – have been isolated ­occasions, much to the former Manchester City player’s frustration.

Neilson wasn’t helped by a ­deflection when Stevenson opened the scoring after a strong run down the left flank. As far as Hearts were concerned, the goal might possibly have come too early. Nearly half-an-hour remained and Motherwell had already laid siege to the Hearts goal.

However, when Motherwell did respond, there was a freakish element to their equaliser. Moore, who replaced Zaine Francis-Angol after 69 minutes, had only been on the park around ten seconds when the ball landed at his feet after a clearance. Acting on ­youthful instinct and from a position about 25 yards out he simply let fly. The ball sped past MacDonald into the goal. Talk about making an impact. He had previously only played four minutes of league action.

While there was little they could do to prevent this strike, Hearts will be disappointed by the manner of the winning goal, which was a little more straightforward.

Motherwell had again pinned Hearts back. When they won a corner, the recording of a bugle being blown crackled across the Tannoy. It felt as though something was about to happen and it did – the corner by Iain Vigurs was met by Shaun Hutchinson, whose powerful header eluded several players in the six-yard box and crossed the line.

It was the right result on the balance of play but a body blow for the large Hearts travelling support of 1253.

They know that it might have been a different story. They will also know that things need to change soon if the ­miracle is to happen.