Hearts three wins from Championship title but key man injured at Arbroath

Hearts are three wins from the Championship title but lost another key defender to injury in Arbroath.

Hearts midfielder Andy Halliday rises above the rest as team-mate Liam Boyce holds off the Arbroath players.

Stephen Kingsley was forced off 14 minutes from the end of a competitive but uninspiring goalless draw at Gayfield Park. He is now a doubt for Tuesday’s Scottish Cup tie away to Brora Rangers.

A robust challenge from Arbroath’s Ben Williamson left the Tynecastle player claiming his groin had gone – meaning both Hearts’ first-choice full-backs could miss the Brora trip.

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Right-back Michael Smith is already suspended and will be away on international duty with Northern Ireland. Left-back Kingsley’s absence would add extra complications to a tie which is already something of a journey into the unknown against the Highland League champions.

Part-time Arbroath battled admirably throughout the afternoon against a Hearts team which never properly caught fire. Nonetheless, Dunfermline’s defeat and Raith Rovers’ draw means the Edinburgh club are now 16 points clear and need only three wins to secure automatic promotion.

They lacked panache at times in a game not for the fainthearted. Arbroath hoisted balls forward and showed energy levels which belied their second-bottom place in the league table.

Equally, Hearts rarely looked like a team heading for the title. Another point will be gratefully received by manager Robbie Neilson, although he won’t need reminding about the need for better performance.

Hearts enjoyed continuity with the same team for the third successive match and arrived in Angus to a temperature of 17 degrees. There was a breeze coming off the North Sea but not quite the normal icy gale.

The relative tranquility overhead was in contrast to a frantic start with a clear penalty claim inside two minutes. When a bouncing ball struck the flailing arm of Hearts defender Craig Halkett inside the area, Arbroath appealed loudly for a spot-kick. Referee Euan Anderson was unmoved.

Dick Campbell side then wasted a glorious chance to score first on 12 minutes. From Bobby Linn’s intelligent ball across goal, striker Kris Doolan scooped his finish over the crossbar from inside the six-yard box.

Hearts first threatened eight minutes later when Armand Gnanduillet headed Michael Smith’s cross wide. The visitors were given no time on the ball by their opponents and building rhythm became difficult. Screams of “press, press,” bellowed from the Arbroath technical area whenever Hearts had possession.

Quick balls forward to Gnanduillet and Liam Boyce were dealt with confidently by the Arbroath centre-backs Ricky Little and Thomas O’Brien.

Derek Gaston in the home goal was finally called upon for the first time as the hour mark approached when he gathered Gnanduillet’s low shot from Boyce’s tee up. Little then scuffed Andy Irving’s low free-kick over his own crossbar while attempting to clear.

Hearts pressing intensively for an opener and when substitute Gervane Kastaneer’s low drive found Boyce almost on the goal line, a breakthrough seemed certain. The Northern Irishman couldn’t convert with his back to goal and Little cleared again.

Kingsley was forced off moments later after Williamson’s tackle, and the game thereafter petered out with points shared.

Arbroath (4-4-2): Gaston; Pignatiello, Little, O’Brien, C Hamilton; Williamson, Craigen, Gold (Stewart 77), Linn (Hilson 73); Doolan (McKenna 46), J Hamilton.

Hearts (4-3-1-2): Gordon; M Smith, Popescu, Halkett, Kingsley (Walker 76); McEneff (White 46), Irving, Halliday; Mackay-Steven (Kastaneer 69); Gnanduillet, Boyce.

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