GIVEN all that was at stake for Dundee United, the overwhelming feeling when it came to the final whistle was that they really should have mustered a bit more.
Scorers: Dundee United - Flood (32), Mackay-Steven (65); Hearts - Skacel (35), Novikovas (83)
Bookings: Dundee United - Kenneth; Hearts - Barr, Webster, Zaliukas, Santana
Champions League football is still there to be snatched from Motherwell but a win yesterday would have left their fate in their own hands.
Peter Houston was putting a brave face on things and said even the fact they were in a position to challenge was the stuff of miracles given the start to the campaign. But they knew it was a chance squandered, especially when news of Motherwell’s stunning 5-1 rout of St Johnstone filtered through later in the afternoon. They now face the three teams above them in the final three games of the season but, according to midfielder Willo Flood, the players still fancy their chances.
However, unless Motherwell slip up, it now won’t matter a jot. The Tannadice side went into this match knowing that wins in each of their remaining games would guarantee them a finish ahead of Motherwell. Now the Fir Park side hold the aces. United’s inability to get the victory was, in part, due to the opposition, though. Hearts, who themselves are attempting to chase down those above them in case the Scottish Cup does not grant them their alternative route into Europe, were in determined mood, the disappointment of last weekend’s performance against Rangers giving them a jolt. And if any side deserved to sneak this then it was the Edinburgh men as United looked a tad sluggish and shy of the kind of creative vim and vigour up front that has been fairly commonplace for them in recent times.
But if this could be viewed as a match where points were dropped rather than gained, the bigger worry for Hearts will be the early exit made by Craig Beattie. Having struggled to overcome a heel injury heading into the match, the big striker was replaced by Stephen Elliott after just 31 minutes, with what his manager described as a hamstring strain. Refusing to discuss the injury in the context of the cup final, he did concede that there was a worry he could miss the upcoming league fixtures.
In the end it was Arvydas Novikovas who got the late goal to give Hearts the equaliser they deserved. It was a strike to savour, even if the celebration was not quite executed to perfection. Fed the ball by Elliott, the Lithuanian sub lashed a lovely left-foot effort past Dusan Pernis from the edge of the box but he failed to nail his acrobatics afterwards. “Yeah, the first jump was bad and Temps was too close for the second but next time I score I will do it properly!”
If the goals are as exquisite as that effort then football fans can only hope he contributes to the scoreline more often. It wasn’t the only belter in the game. While United’s front men had captured the attention and been shortlisted for awards as a consequence, it is the midfielders who have weighed in with the goals in the past couple of matches. Last weekend it was Scott Robertson and John Rankin, yesterday it was the two wide men, Flood and Gary Mackay-Steven. The latter is more reknowned for his goals but it was the former who seems to produce the memorable efforts. His last one in a United shirt came in 2007 and was named goal of the season and once again his strike was far from shoddy. It came from the kind of defending which infuriated Sergio but when Ryan McGowan’s header was cleared into the middle of the park, Flood took one lovely wee touch before letting rip with a shot that flew into the corner of Jamie MacDonald’s net. That was in the 32nd minute and opened the afternoon’s scoring.
Within minutes Hearts had restored parity and McGowan had helped redeem himself. It was the full-back who galloped down the right wing and swung in the cross to the back post. Both Robbie Neilson and Elliott challenged and as it came back across goal, Skacel headed it beyond Pernis.
McGowan was then in the wars, a bloodied head having to be swathed in bandages before he was allowed back on the pitch. As the first half ended and the second resumed, it was Hearts in better form, pressing forward with more conviction. But it was United who got the next goal.
From a Flood corner, no-one could make contact and it found its way through to Mackay-Steven, whose shot may not have been struck cleanly, but it was low and on target and it beat MacDonald.
Hearts then threw caution to the wind. Going three at the back, they switched McGowan for David Templeton in the 70th minute and then, in the 79th minute, they sent on Novikovas for Andy Driver. Four minutes later and the United net was bulging.