The Hearts rearguard had gone from being one of the nation’s most parsimonious earlier in the campaign to one whose generosity apparently knew no bounds. Leaking ten goals in four games has cost the Tynecastle club nine points from 12, and left them in serious need of a win on Saturday.
“It was a massive result for us,” said defender John Souttar. “We’d gone quite a few games without a win and conceded quite a few goals so it was crucial that we put a stop to that. I’m delighted for [goalkeeper] Jack Hamilton and the rest of us that we got a clean sheet. We had a few goal-line clearances but that’s what we’re there for.
“A lot of hard work was done at training to improve our defending – we’d been losing three goals against Inverness and Hamilton and a team like Hearts shouldn’t be conceding three goals to anyone. So the clean sheet meant a lot. If one of their chances had gone in and it had finished 3-1 then it wouldn’t have felt like a win.”
Although the dominant team, with the midfield setting the tone and the tempo of the play from the outset, and leaving Motherwell very little scope to develop their own game, there was a need for some frantic, late interventions as Mark McGhee’s side tried to get themselves back into proceedings and Faycal Rherras at the post at set pieces proved a formidable presence, while Souttar was a more acrobatic barrier as they denied Ben Heneghan, Scott McDonald and Lionel Ainsworth on the line.
It was agonising for the Fir Park side, who are in the strange position of sitting sixth in the league but remain acutely aware that they are still just two points ahead of Partick Thistle, who occupy the automatic relegation slot at the foot of the table. While others bemoaned their misfortune, the manager said it was testament to Hearts’ defensive doggedness, a view echoed by Souttar.
“It was very important that we got this win because we’ve been stuttering a wee bit and we knew we could play a lot better. If we’d won a few of those four games then we’d be clear in second already but there will be points during the season where every team is going to be frustrated. We just had to deal with it and it’s done now.”
As it is they now have the chance to get there on Wednesday when a win over Rangers would allow them to jump above the Ibrox side and Aberdeen and the fact they have found a balance between keeping things tighter at the back and finding the net at the other end offers them a timely boost in confidence ahead of that key clash. In the middle of the park Arnaud Djoum and Jamie Walker carved out openings, while Robbie Muirhead enjoyed his best game in a maroon shirt. They even had the luxury of giving teenager Rory Currie his home debut later in the game and the signs were he can also do a job for the team.
Although Walker weighed in with the third goal in the 66th minute, it was American striker Bjorn Johnsen who opened the scoring on Saturday, with a 31st minute strike that screamed composure as he rounded keeper Craig Samson. The Hearts forwards have been criticised for failing to capitalise on the chances created but having managed just two goals up until Saturday’s game, he doubled the tally with another goal – this time a header from a Muirhead corner – just four minutes after the interval to seal the points.
“He’s a real handful. I wouldn’t want to play against them. He’s a big boy, he’s a runner, he works hard and he has an eye for goal. That will have done wonders for his confidence,” said Souttar. “Maybe he can go on a run now and score a few goals. If he can score against Rangers, in front of a full house, that will help him even more. It’s the type of challenge he’ll relish.”