SCORERS: Hearts - Wilson 78; Dundee United - Graham 35, Ciftci 70
It doesn’t just rain but it pours for the Tynecastle club, who saw their first competitive Friday night fixture in over 50 years deliver a defeat by Dundee United that means the nightmare scenario feared by their fans remains an entirely possible one. Although there is a lot of football to be played before then, Hearts could be condemned to relegation by their rivals Hibernian next weekend – if they aren’t already down by then.
This is not the problem of United, who piled on the misery for Hearts with their third away victory in succession. Friday nights in Edinburgh are more to their liking – this was their second victory in the capital inside a month.
The victory was not as comfortably attained as had been anticipated by the two-goal lead United held after 75 minutes. Strikes from Brian Graham and Nadir Ciftci looked to put United well in command but a header from Hearts skipper Danny Wilson with 13 minutes left offered the home team some hope. Centre-half Brad McKay was sent on as an auxiliary striker as Hearts sought to enact another brave comeback. It wasn’t to be, however. Relegation D-day could yet fall next Sunday.
Despite the awful weather, there was a pleasing sense of the United players enjoying what they were doing as the focus returned to football. At one point early in the first half John Rankin slid in a clever ball between full-back and centre-half for Andrew Robertson to chase. Except the Scotland international chose not to chase it. Rankin questioned Robertson’s decision to hang back before both players broke out in wide smiles and agreed to forget about it.
Both they and their teammates re-engaged with the task at hand. On a night when the ball was moving quickly across the greasy surface, the conditions seemed to suit the quick feet of the visitors.
But Hearts, with McKay dropped to the bench to allow Dylan McGowan to partner Wilson in the centre of defence, eventually settled. The returning David Smith shot high over the bar as the home side began to explore the United half as the rain continued to drench the shirts of both teams.
Hearts manager Gary Locke spent much of the game at the edge of his technical area driving his players on. On such a bleak, sodden night it was tempting to cast him as a King Canute figure urging back the tide. He knows Hearts’ race is almost run. Included in his programme notes were the inevitable promises to not give up the ghost “until it is mathematically impossible to stay up”.
He also dwelt on the recent first anniversary of his promotion to manager. “Throughout a course of a 30-year managerial career you would expect to experience just about everything in the game – but I think I have managed that in the past year!” Locke wrote. And again last night, he had to look on as his team fell behind having looked to be on course to make it to half-time on level terms at least.
A poor pass into the midfield from Callum Paterson was the source of the opening goal. Ryan Dow fed Rankin, who played in Robertson. The full-back’s low cross to the edge of the six-yard box found Graham, who scored for the second game in succession, rifling the ball high into the net with a flourish.
To the home side’s credit, they should still have gone in at the break on level terms. First Paterson almost made up for his earlier lapse when lifting a header just over the bar from a Smith free-kick and then, four minutes before half-time, Hearts strung together the move of the half – and possibly the game. Smith and Jamie Hamill played a part, with the latter player laying off a clever flick into Ryan Stevenson’s path as he raced into the box. Sadly for Hearts, he could not deliver the finish to crown such slick play and sliced his effort into the side netting.
It would have provided Hearts with a huge boost had he managed to equalise just before half-time. In the event, the hosts were fortunate not to slip two behind just after the break when Ciftci left Wilson for dead on the touchline and sped into the box. With both Graham and Stuart Armstrong screaming for the ball at the far post, he elected to try and dink an effort in at the far post. The ball trundled wide to the evident disgust of his two team-mates.
United did manage to stretch their lead after 70 minutes after another poor clearance by Hearts. Dow fastened onto the ball and fed Ciftci, who struck his ninth goal of the season with a crisp finish. But Hearts again offered their redoubtable fans in another healthy crowd of 13,448 some reason to believe when Wilson flashed in a header from substitute Jason Holt’s corner. As so often this season, it wasn’t quite enough.
Hearts: MacDonald, Paterson, McGowan, Wilson, McHattie, Stevenson (King 76), Robinson, Hamill, Smith (Holt 71), Carrick (McKay 81), Nicholson. Subs not used: Ridgers, Oliver, McGhee, Beith.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Wilson, Dillon, Gunning, Robertson, Armstrong (Gauld 71), Paton, Rankin, Dow, Graham (El Alagui 78), Ciftci (S Smith 90). Subs not used: Butcher, Souttar, McCallum, Gomis.