Hearts show their fortitude with exhilarating comeback in barmy second half against Ayr
Amid the backdrop of Storm Bella's icy wind and rain, the Jambos let a 1-0 lead slip against Ayr United and for the first time this season trailed at home.
Given the gut-wrenching penalty shoot-out defeat six days ago in the Scottish Cup final by Celtic, and the clear emotional toll it took on the Hearts players, they were now required to dig deep and show their character in adversity.
What they produced in a 20-minute spell after the Honest Men took the lead – briefly – in Gorgie is further evidence that this team, under the tutelage of Robbie Neilson, has the necessary mentality to (a) recover from events at Hampden and (b) navigate their way out of the Championship as title winners and back into Scotland's top tier. This 5-3 win was crucial.
The way they lost the Scottish Cup clash, after leading the shoot-out, will take time to heal. The two men who missed penalties in Stephen Kingsley and Craig Wighton will have suffered more than most, but they both played pivotal parts in this victory.
Kingsley, who is an outstanding full-back at this level, opened the scoring with a free-kick, bagged an assist and was a constant source of attacking inspiration to Hearts, while Wighton came on as a sub, scored twice and also set up Liam Boyce for a goal. His impact cannot be underestimated.
How a crazy match unfolded
Hearts took the lead on 11 minutes when Kingsley’s free-kick bounced in front of goalkeeper Viljami Sinisalo and squirmed under the Finn.
The rest of the first half passed without serious incident, with both teams toiling in the inclement conditions.
However, what had been a cold match burst into flames in a red-hot second half.
You always felt Ayr had a goal in them and it came on 57 minutes, when Andy Murdoch’s ball into the penalty box found its way to Cammy Smith via Michael Moffat. Smith’s effort appeared to take a slight deflection on its way past Craig Gordon.
Three minutes later, Ayr went ahead. A deep cross found Luke McCowan unmarked at the far post and he too easily cut onto his left foot and curled the ball home.
Clearly stung, Hearts bolstered their attacking options from the bench, with Wighton coming on. The forward made the telling difference.
He equalised on 68 minutes, slotting in after a fine cutback from Christophe Berra, and then three minutes later, Olly Lee put Hearts back in front after a loose ball landed at his feet.
The goals kept on flowing. Wighton made it 4-2 on 74 minutes with a skimmed effort and then, on 81 minutes, Boyce ended the contest with a clinical finish from Wighton's pass.
Ayr folded like a bad poker player after briefly holding the aces, but they did have the final act, Tom Walsh scoring after some slightly slapstick defending by Hearts right at the death.
Never mind that, though: the fortitude of this Hearts team cannot be questioned. They showed the mentality of champions.
Hearts: Gordon, Smith, Halkett, Berra, Kingsley (Haring 78), Irving, Halliday, Roberts (Naismith 58), Lee, Frear (Wighton 63), Boyce.
Ayr: Sinisalo, Reading, Roscoe, Baird, Muirhead, Miller, Murdoch, McCowan, Smith (Zanatta 79), Chalmers (Walsh 78), Moffat (Anderson 59).