Two headers did the damage, the first from Jon Daly shortly before half-time, with Gavin Gunning doubling up five minutes from the end of a disciplined United performance.
Hearts slipped to sixth in the Scottish Premier League as a result of this defeat and St Johnstone’s victory over Dunfermline. They monopolised possession during the 90 minutes and, particularly in the first half, created some decent chances. Finishing was not up to standard, though. The closest they came was moments before United’s second goal but Gunning appeared with a tremendous block to deny Stephen Elliott.
The hosts left the field to some jeers, whilst United celebrated a fine victory in Edinburgh to extend their recent hold over Hearts. Paulo Sergio, the Hearts manager, must now lift his team for next week’s visit to Ibrox following a disappointing recent run of no wins in five league games.
The match began encouragingly enough from Hearts’ perspective. Darren Barr deputised for the suspended Andy Webster in central defence, one of five changes conducted by Sergio following last weekend’s 3-0 defeat at Fir Park. There was no sign of new signing Craig Beattie, however, who presumably was not considered sufficiently fit after over two months without a competitive match.
Inside two minutes Rudi Skacel, one of those reinstated to Hearts’ starting line-up, unleashed a volley which Dundee United’s Dusan Pernis required two attempts to hold. Another player back in the side, Scott Robinson, also stung the palms of the visiting goalkeeper. From a 12th-minute headed knockdown by David Obua, Elliott spun to shoot straight into Pernis’ arms. There was little argument that Hearts were in command of the early stages.
Jamie MacDonald was called into action to push Sean Dillon’s 18th minute header from Willo Flood’s corner over his crossbar. That United attack was virtually an isolated incident in a first half hitherto dominated by the home team. Pernis pushed Jamie Hamill’s looping cross to safety before collecting Ian Black’s dipping volley, then Black departed through injury to be replaced by Ryan McGowan five minutes before the interval.
Within 60 seconds, United were ahead. Barry Douglas’ swirling free-kick was met with Daly’s powerful header as the striker evaded both Danny Grainger and Marius Zaliukas to nod the ball beyond MacDonald. It might have been against the run of play but the Tayside club were delighted to seize the initiative. They had the former Hearts defender Robbie Neilson to thank for preserving their advantage in first-half stoppage time when he headed Elliott’s effort off the goal line.
Zaliukas did not re-appear after the break due to injury, and with Suso the replacement McGowan was left partnering Barr in an unfamiliar central defence. Even more surprising was the sight of 19-year-old Scott Robinson wearing the captain’s armband.
Hearts appealed for a penalty on 49 minutes when Flood leaned into Danny Grainger as he entered the United penalty area, however their claims went in vain. For Peter Houston, the Dundee United manager, the task was about containing Hearts whilst attempting to capitalise on any opportunities created. Houston replaced Johnny Russell with Stuart Armstrong after an argument broke out between player and manager, with Russell guilty of answering Houston back.
There was similar niggle on the pitch with challenges becoming evermore aggressive and, on occasion, reckless. As the game progressed, Hearts pressed for an equaliser and came desperately close on 79 minutes. From Suso’s threaded pass, Skacel found himself one on one with Pernis but shot stright at the Slovakian. The Czech’s collected the rebound and tried again only for Pernis to parry. As Elliott followed up looking certain to score, Gunning appeared with a block tackle at the final second.
That about summed up Hearts’ afternoon on a day when little went right for the Edinburgh club. Their misery was complete five minutes from full-time when Gunning compounded an excellent display by heading United’s second goal beyond MacDonald from Mackay-Steven’s corner.
Hearts (4-1-4-1): MacDonald; Hamill, Barr, Zaliukas (Suso 46), Grainger; Black (McGowan 40); Taouil, Robinson, Skacel, Obua (Driver 67); Elliott. Subs: Ridgers, Glen, Prychynenko, Holt.
Dundee Utd (4-4-2): Pernis; Neilson, Dillon, Gunning, Douglas; Flood, Robertson (Ryan 89), Rankin, Mackay-Steven; Russell (Armstrong 59), Daly. Subs: Banks, Kenneth, Watson, Lacny, Dow.
Referee: Calum Murray.