A largely dominant display at Tannadice earned the Tynecastle club a deserved 2-0 victory, although three important saves by goalkeeper Craig Gordon were critical to the end result. They also showed why he will be Scotland’s first-choice goalkeeper for next week’s World Cup qualifiers.
The Hearts fans left Dundee in jubilant mood after witnessing their team continue an unbeaten start with a record which now reads three wins and a draw. Five games without defeat at the end of last season has been taken forward into this campaign.
For United, a lack of attacking panache was the main issue. They beat Rangers and St Johnstone in their previous two league games, however struggled to create for much of the afternoon against Hearts.
They enjoyed a brief renaissance around the 70-minute mark before Armand Gnanduillet’s late goal added to Liam Boyce’s first-half strike to settle the contest.
New Hearts signings Ben Woodburn and Taylor Moore both made debuts in maroon having joined a team brimming with confidence – and which now has ten points from the first 12 available after promotion from the Championship.
With sunshine pouring down and the Tannadice pitch resembling a snooker table, conditions were perfect for football. This was Robbie Neilson’s first return to his former club since a swift exit to rejoin Hearts last summer and he received a mixed reception from locals.
United replaced the suspended Peter Pawlett with Chris Mochrie in midfield as the 18-year-old made a first league start. Hearts granted one new arrival, Woodburn, a debut from the start and left the other, Moore, on the substitutes’ bench.
Centre-back Moore arrived on loan from Bristol City 24 hours before kick-off, while forward Woodburn’s loan from Liverpool went through earlier in the week. Their presence added a touch of extra excitement for more than 2,200 away supporters travelling to Tayside.
They made plenty noise having been allocated part of the main stand and the traditionally-known “Shed” behind the goal occupied by Gordon in the first half. Combined with a boisterous bunch of home fans, there was a crackling atmosphere inside Tannadice.
The match started in open fashion as Hearts tested their 3-4-3 system against United’s 4-4-2. John Souttar’s 19th minute effort following a corner landed high in the stand, much to the delight of those in tangerine, but the visitors enjoyed an encouraging start probing at the opposition rearguard whilst carefully trying to retain possession.
Peter Haring sent their next goal attempt over the crossbar following Boyce’s lay-off. Woodburn was involved in many of Hearts’ attacks with intelligent movement inside from his position on the right flank, supplemented by crisp passes and flicks.
They remained vulnerable to a counter-attack, though. On 39 minutes, young Mochrie linked with Nicky Clark for a through ball to the advanced Jamie Robson. His angled drive was parried and eventually collected by Gordon.
Hearts should have opened the scoring two minutes later to compound their dominance with United pressed back. Souttar’s curling deep cross from the right found Haring arriving for a glancing header, but the Austrian’s contact diverted the ball wide of Carson’s far post.
Their furstration lasted only minutes. Andy Halliday’s cute pass from the left touchline found Mackay-Steven with his back to goal near the penalty area. He initially did not control the bouncing ball as Edwards competed for it, but as the winger tried to escape the centre-back’s attentions he fell inside the box. Referee Greg Aitken pointed instantly to the spot.
Boyce's watched his driven penalty brilliantly parried by the United goalkeeper Trevor Carson but the Northern Irishman calmly waited to stroke home the rebound. The incident certainly antagonised the home support, who raged at the officials and Mackay-Steven as players retreated for the half-time break.
Boyce fashioned an opening for Haring as Hearts’ pressure continued into the second period. The forward’s dinked cross evaded every United defender while also missing the unmarked Haring towards the back post.
What seemed like a calf injury ended Woodburn's participation on the hour as Josh Ginnelly took over. He immediately stretched the game out on the right side and needed no encouragement to run with the ball at his direct opponent, Robson.
The hosts forced their way forward on 70 minutes and Gordon was forced into an instinctive save to stop Edwards’ header from substitute Ian Harkes’ corner. The midfielder himself stung the goalkeeper’s fingertips shortly after.
United had seized some initiative and Gordon preserved his clean sheet with an impressive stop from Calum Butcher. Then came Moore’s initiation before another superb save by the Scotland goalkeeper from Charlie Mulgrew’s 22-yard free-kick.
Despite controlling the vast majority of this encounter, the Tynecastle side found themselves hemmed in their own half entering the final ten minutes. Many in maroon looked tired and with United sensing an equaliser the final moments were tense.
Nerves were settled on 90 minutes. Ginnelly stole possession on the right and scampered towards goal before a low ball for Gnanduillet to side-foot into the net past Carson. For Hearts, that was job done. A solid team performance, plenty decent football played and a useful victory to take into the international break.
Dundee Utd (4-4-2): Carson; Smith, Edwards, Mulgrew, Robson; Mochrie, Levitt (Butcher 53), Fuchs, Sporle (Watson 68); Clark (Harkes 53), McNulty.
Hearts (3-4-3): Gordon; Souttar, Halkett, Cochrane; M Smith, Baningime, Haring, Halliday (Moore 82); Woodburn (Ginnelly 60), Boyce, Mackay-Steven (Gnanduillet 68).