The Hearts mantra is that their Premiership survival remains in their own hands. But it was their head in their hands at Tynecastle as both captain Steven Naismith and international striker Liam Boyce failed to convert late opportunities which would have turned a draw into a victory.
Ordinarily, against a team occupying third place and determined to prove themselves the best of the rest come the end of the season, a point won might have seemed like a good day at the office but with the spectre of relegation hanging over them and second-bottom Hamilton snatching a late winner to extend their advantage over the Tynecastle side, there was a sense of what might have been.
“This is a hard time for everybody on the pitch,” said the Hearts boss Daniel Stendel, who is well aware that anxiety plays a part when there is so much at stake. “I said to the players I want us to play more. I think we would get more chances then but I understand I am not on the pitch. The fight was great again and the support was great, plus Motherwell were also good. We did not really play with patience when we had the chance to go ahead. They had some chances, we had two big chances, but when you see the other results, one point is not enough.”
On the back of a satisfying and confidence-boosting week, it was a blow for the home side to head up the tunnel at full time to the news that they remain at the foot of the table, three points behind St Mirren, who they face in a hugely important head-to-head on Wednesday, and four behind Hamilton.
But there are some signs of hope in the way they tackled their recent fixtures against better quality opposition, defeating Rangers and Hibs and proving more than a match for Motherwell. This time though, they were left rueing those late misses and the momentary defensive lapse in the first half which gave the visitors the lead.
A loose pass from centre-back Craig Halkett 20 minutes into the game was blocked by Chris Long, who darted in on Zdenek Zlamal’s goal, rounded the keeper and fired an angled shot into the net.
It was a setback for a side who had created their own chances in the opening stages and had been unlucky not to capitalise on Mark Gillespie’s foray out of his box to chest the ball down and hoof it up the park. It went straight to Sean Clare, who in his own half and with the stadium, shouting “shoot”, pinged a long range effort that appeared netbound until Allan Campbell popped up in front of the empty net to block.
Trailing, Hearts stepped it up a bit and, in an open game, matched Motherwell for chances. Lewis Moore whipped in a great delivery but a deflection took it away from Conor Washington, who was lurking at the back post.
Naismith then shot low across Gillespie’s goal but, hitting Hearts on the counter-attack, the home side held their breath when Zlamal slid in to halt Jermaine Hylton and clear. Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson was adamant that it should have been a spot kick but any on-field protests at the time were muted and the referee was unconvinced.
“He thought Jermaine was on his way down, and he probably was, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s been caught fully. It’s a penalty. It was a two-footed tackle at 1-0 and, if we score, then they need to come out and really press us high and go for it. The game would possibly have a different ending with us getting three points.”
Hearts did press, though, with Stendel sending on Boyce in place of Oliver Bozanic at the start of the second half and, just three minutes after the interval, the home side grabbed the equaliser.
Jamie Walker, who had replaced the injured Clare, played the ball through to Naismith and he made it to the byline before cutting it back for Washington in a central area, at close range, to slam home for his second goal in a week.
Motherwell had another decent effort from Hylton late on, which Zlamal tipped round the post, but it was Hearts who had head in hands when their experienced front men, Naismith and Boyce, passed up those late openings.