Hearts reaction: Steven Naismith explains mentality shift but gives short shrift to Celtic-Rangers claim

The Jambos moved further clear in third place after their latest win over Motherwell

Hearts manager Steven Naismith hailed the improvements his players have made to their mentality after watching them beat Motherwell 2-0 to collect an eighth successive win.

Second-half goals from Lawrence Shankland and Kenneth Vargas sent the Gorgie side 14 points clear in third place in the Premiership. Hearts have won 11 of their last 12 games in a fruitful spell stretching back to December and Naismith insists there have been vast improvement on and off the pitch in that period.

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He said: “There has definitely been a mentality shift for sure. We go into every game wanting to win. We understand there are times where we need to take risks and there are times like today where we need to be patient. You can’t get sucked into a fight or get frustrated. It’s these wee small things that change the mentality and the progression of the team. There is definitely a mentality shift in what we expect from each other and also what we expect the outcome to be. Yeah there’s going to be bumps in the road and we will get beat and things like that, but I think we will react to those situations better than we would have a year ago.”

Hearts' Kenneth Vargas celebrates with team-mates after scoring against Motherwell.Hearts' Kenneth Vargas celebrates with team-mates after scoring against Motherwell.
Hearts' Kenneth Vargas celebrates with team-mates after scoring against Motherwell.

Despite moving to within 10 points of second-place Rangers – who travel to St Johnstone on Sunday – Naismith played down any suggestion of Hearts catching either half of the Old Firm. He added: “They’re (Celtic and Rangers) still a bit ahead. We will get to April/May and if we are fortunate enough to be close then you can dream. But for us, we just need to keep winning games and the gap (to fourth place) will be bigger. We know as a squad but it’s week to week. The way we managed the game today, our speed of attack, these are the real markers of progression for me which should ultimately lead to success.”

Motherwell manager Stuart Kettlewell was furious that his players switched off for the opening goal. He said: “There is real frustration with what feels like our Achilles heel. You have the top marksman in the country who is absolutely flying at the moment and we give him the freedom of our box. t’s good delivery into our box but, and I said this to the players, you can deal with these moments to 95 per cent of the game at venues like these and you need to be 100 per cent in a game like this.”

Motherwell made a promising start with Jake Vale forcing his way into the box but the forward’s shot from a tight angle flew wide. At the other end, visiting goalkeeper Liam Kelly was forced into making a save to keep out an attempted clearance from team-mate Paul McGinn with the defender under pressure from Alex Cochrane’s menacing free-kick.

Hearts enjoyed plenty of possession but struggled to create any meaningful openings in the final third against a Motherwell team that were looking to hit on the counter. But Hearts goalkeeper Zander Clark was not completely redundant at the other end, with the Scotland international being forced to push Dan Casey’s ambitious half-volley from 40 yards over his bar.

The visitors broke at speed every time they got the chance of a counter and Lennon Miller passed up a great chance in the 37th minute. The midfielder ran clear of the Hearts rearguard from a Harry Paton pass but there was no conviction with his effort and his tame right-foot shot bounced harmlessly wide.

Naismith brought on Natty Atkinson and Vargas at the break as the home team looked to become more of an attacking threat. But it took Hearts time to adjust as they switched to a back four, with Motherwell enjoying a sustained spell of pressure. Hearts soon regained their composure and Alan Forrest forced a save from Kelly with an effort from the edge of the box.

Shankland then should have done better moments later with a volley that bounced wide after being set upon by Calem Nieuwenhof. But the Scotland striker hit the target in the 67th minute to give Hearts the lead. Forrest delivered a free-kick and the prolific 28-year-old’s downward header found the corner of the net.

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Hearts grew in belief after going in front and were keen to add another, with Vargas seeing a volley glance off the post after connecting with an Atkinson cross before turning provider for Forrest with a lay-off. The forward did well to create space inside the box but his shot was parried by Kelly. However, Vargas made sure of the points after sweeping a shot into the net from close range in added time.

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