Anthony O’Connor’s winner for Aberdeen all but ended the Gorgie club’s Europa League hopes and ensured the final minutes of action in front of the iconic Archibald Leitch structure were played out amid an at-times toxic atmosphere, with supporters turning on players, head coach Ian Cathro and director of football Craig Levein.
Only a few hundred stayed behind afterwards to see the team re-emerge to thank them for the support throughout the season, and Cathro was the subject of further jeers as he tried to apologise for what has been a demoralising campaign.
Hearts made two changes to the side that started the 2-2 draw at home to Partick Thistle eight days earlier. Aaron Hughes, fresh from having extended his contract for another year, returned from an injury lay-off to make his first appearance since the Scottish Cup defeat by Hibs at Easter Road in February, while Lennard Sowah was back in the starting XI after his own short absence. Liam Smith and Moha Choulay both dropped to the subs’ bench. There was no place in the squad for Sam Nicholson, who is expected to leave at the end of the season after rejecting the offer of a new contract.
Hearts were piped on to the pitch for their 2253rd and final match in front of the main stand. Despite the fanfare in the build-up, the match was slow to ignite. In what was a low-key opening 20 minutes, Aberdeen had the only two notable opportunities, with Andrew Considine heading wide from a Niall McGinn free-kick before the Northern Irish winger saw an angled shot pushed behind by Jack Hamilton after bursting into the danger area.
The Dons made the breakthrough in the 21st minute, however, after Hamilton could only parry a long-range strike from Graeme Shinnie straight into the path of Adam Rooney and the Aberdeen striker made no mistake in forcing home his 20th goal of the season from eight yards out. The goalkeeper was jeered by a section of the home support the next time he touched the ball.
Hearts tried to muster a response and Jamie Walker headed wide in the 24th minute from a Don Cowie free-kick. That was as close as the hosts got to scoring in what was an underwhelming first-half display. Ian Cathro responded with a half-time change as Smith was sent on in place of Andraz Struna.
The Dons, who introduced O’Connor in place of Peter Pawlett at the start of the second half, almost doubled their lead in 49 minutes when McGinn’s powerful shot was palmed out by Hamilton and Shinnie rasped the rebound just past.
In the 51st minute, the hosts went close to an equaliser but Arnaud Djoum was unable to divert an angled shot from Sowah into the net after sliding in at the back post.
Hearts had generally enjoyed the best of the second-half play and they levelled on the hour mark when Esmael Goncalves nodded in from close range after being picked out by an excellent Smith cross from the right.
Parity lasted only four minutes, however, as Aberdeen sub O’Connor looped a header high beyond Hamilton after connecting with Jonny Hayes’ free-kick from the left. Cathro responded by taking off captain Cowie two minutes later. The decision was loudly jeered by the home support.
Their mood wasn’t improved by the sight of Walker being sent off in the last minute after picking up a second booking for a foul on McGinn. This was anything but a fitting finale for a stand which has witnessed so many great moments in Hearts’ proud history.
Hearts: Hamilton, Struna (Smith 46), Nowak, Hughes, Sowah (Choulay 56), Tziolis, Buaben, Cowie (Johnsen 67), Djoum, Walker, Goncalves. Subs not used: Noring, Kitchen, Currie, Martin.
Booked: Buaben 28, Walker 43.
Sent off: Walker 90.
Aberdeen: Lewis, Logan, Taylor, Reynolds, Considine, McLean, Shinnie, Hayes, Pawlett (O’Connor 46), McGinn, Rooney (Stockley 84). Subs not used: Alexander, Christie, Wright, Ross, Storey.
Booked: Lewis 23, Reynolds 88.
Referee: Willie Collum