Dundee 0-1 Hearts: Christmas comes early for Jamie Walker as rare cameo earns big win at Dens
Christmas has come a week early for Hearts midfielder Jamie Walker.
Having not played prior to this match against Dundee since September 18, the 28-year-old attacking midfielder's days at Tynecastle looked numbered, with a loan move to St Johnstone or Livingston looking increasingly likely.
So, when Hearts manager Robbie Neilson turned to his subs bench midway through a turgid match at Dens Park with the scoreline firmly bolted at 0-0 and summoned Walker for only his third appearance of the season, this was a chance he had to take.
Walker only just returned to the bench recently, unable to impress Neilson in Hearts' bright start to the season. However, the academy graduate – in his second spell at the club – has that spark, the ingenuity to change games such as these. And that's exactly what he did.
Neither team had impressed in the first hour of this contest. Both were prepared to attack but the lack of quality in the final third was glaring. Walker changed the trajectory of proceedings, adding more creativity and – crucially – the winning goal.
It came on 75 minutes when Barrie McKay took the ball down in the penalty box and laid it off to Aaron McEneff. The Irishman's effort hit Dundee defender Liam Fontaine and struck the base of the post, with the ball rolling kindly into Walker's path. He made no mistake in scoring from close range to spark raucous celebrations in the away end.
It was enough to give Hearts all three points as they tighten their grip on third place in the cinch Premiership. These are the sort of wins you have to grind out in the quest for European football. Without the injured Liam Boyce in attack, they lacked potency until Walker's introduction. Boyce gives Hearts a focal point, a starting point for their attacks, and Liverpool loanee Ben Woodburn was unable to replicate his role.
Dundee's issues are far greater, though. This was their fourth defeat in a row and are firmly entrenched in a relegation battle. Livingston's late equaliser at home to Ross County keeps them above the relegation places, but they have a crippling injury list – six first-team players missed out here – and have not been helped by the antics of striker Jason Cummings in the build-up to this match. Pictured at an Open Goal event at The Hydro on Thursday night, he breached club protocol with his actions and was sent home from training on Friday morning. The irony is that he would likely have been handed a rare start due to the player shortages. As it was, Celtic loanee Leigh Griffiths led the line for the first time since a 5-0 trouncing by Ross County in late October.
Still lacking match sharpness and conditioning, Griffiths played the full 90 minutes but offered a limited contribution. Dundee huffed and puffed, but they could have played until Boxing Day without scoring. Their only proper chance fell to Luke McCowan just before the interval, but his drilled effort was comfortably saved by Craig Gordon.
In fact, Dundee's best hope as the game entered the closing stages was that the fog that descended on Tayside in the last 15 minutes would halt proceedings, but that wasn't a true danger despite diminishing visibility. Manager James McPake needs the gloom to lift. For Hearts, they are on track to finish best of the rest.
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