Four goals in nine ruinous second-half minutes and another shortly before full-time consigned Hearts to their equal heaviest defeat of the season as Livingston’s fairytale return to the top flight continued.
How Zdenek Zlamal will rue the concession of a penalty in the 72nd minute. Prior to this, Hearts, while uninspired, looked capable of leaving a tricky venue with a point at the very least having survived a difficult first-half when they lost another defender, Clevid Dikamona, to injury. No-one could have predicted this capitulation, among them manager Craig Levein.
Craig Halkett’s conversion of the penalty following Zlamal’s rush of blood to the head sparked the craziest finish to a game in Scotland this season. Hearts lost their discipline and Arnaud Djoum was sent off moments later for a second bookable offence after felling Dolly Menga. By the time we reached the 80-minute mark Hearts were four goals as well as a man down.
By the end it was a scarcely credible five. Menga scored one of the goals of the season after a mazy run that recalled Ricky Villa’s strike for Tottenham Hotspur in the 1981 FA Cup final replay.
On-loan Rangers player Ryan Hardie scored twice with neat finishes before Shaun Byrne wrapped things up with three minutes left by slamming home his side’s fifth. Hearts could not even score the consolation goal they barely deserved. Steven MacLean’s strike at the death hit the bar.
These ultimately horrifying 90 minutes for Hearts fans underlined something they already know: they desperately need Steven Naismith back. It also re-affirmed something else Scottish football has discovered this season: Livingston are the real deal, particularly when they are playing at home. They are now back up to fifth.
Hearts have no one with the X factor at present. They huffed and they puffed and probably should have been trailing by the time Zlamal set in motion his side’s collapse by flattening Halkett. As well as point to the spot, referee Nick Walsh flashed the yellow then red card in the goalkeeper’s face. He was aghast, as were most of those in the stadium. Nobody could recall him having already been booked.
Walsh seemed to quickly realise the mistake and Zlamal was permitted to return to his goal. But there was no further reprieve. Halkett sent him the wrong way.
While work parties were spilling into the streets from pubs Hearts fans endured their own Black Friday. The Livi fans, in contrast, were in dreamland – and have been all season.
The teams had traded efforts off the post within ten minutes of kick-off in what seemed a promising portent of what was to come on a bitterly cold night in West Lothian.
Hardie was first to come close to opening the scoring. His fierce left foot angled drive bashed back off the far post after seven minutes. The upright was still shaking when three minutes later Demetri Mitchell tried his luck from the edge of the box for the visitors but saw his shot strike Liam Kelly’s right hand post and rebound back into play having briefly threatened to spin back across the line. Christophe Berra then had the opportunity to mark his 200 th appearance with a goal but headed straight into Kelly’s arms from a long throw.
It was Livingston who kept on creating chances. Hearts left the field at the interval relieved to still be in the game after an opening half where they rode their luck while also relying on Zlamal, who made at least two goal-saving stops.
But fortune deserted the visitors after 26 minutes when they suffered another injury setback in the centre of their defence. Dikamona had to be replaced by veteran Aaron Hughes after picking up a knock.
If there was a positive for Hearts on reaching half-time it was not conceding in some often fraught late first-half moments.
Hearts had been seeking to make it successive wins for the first time since October and consign a run of poor from firmly to the past.
Wingers Callumn Morrison and Demetri Mitchell sought to give the visitors width and give MacLean and other deep runners into the box the required service. But they already know the difficulties involved in seeking to break down a doughty Livingston defence; their first meeting of the season finished 0-0 at Tynecastle.
They were encountering the same problems here. An additional concern was the danger posed by Livingston in attack; this had not been so evident in Gorgie. Levein dispensed with Morrison before the second half. Sean Clare, a more robust figure, replaced the winger and took his place wide on the left; Mitchell switched flanks to the right and dropped in behind MacLean more often. Was this the magic formula? What followed suggested not. Livingston ripped the visitors apart, Menga scoring the pick of the bunch with a magnificent solo goal where he delayed pulling the trigger while leaving several Hearts players in a heap.