STEPHEN ELLIOTT celebrated his second goal in as many matches, Hearts supporters cheered in the stands while Paulo Sergio engaged in an impromptu jig of joy. The Portuguese coach, fingers pointing skywards, hopped deliriously around the technical area after seeing his team go 2-0 ahead against Motherwell. It was Christmas Eve and he had genuine reason to be cheerful.
It seems Sergio has found his perfect template for success. Both goals in Saturday’s victory were a triumph for width and flair, with David Templeton and Mehdi Taouil excelling in a 4-2-3-1 formation. With Ian Black and Adrian Mrowiec anchoring midfield and the dynamic Scott Robinson in between Templeton and Taouil, Hearts were a formidable force. Certainly one too strong for Motherwell, underlined by their 13 goal attempts to the visitors’ four. Sergio has taken time to assess the squad at his disposal and tinkered with several systems. He now looks to have settled on the format which produced last weekend’s 4-0 defeat of Dunfermline and this, perhaps even more impressive, success. More impressive because the Lanarkshire side are one of the SPL’s in-form teams, sitting third in the league and boasting an away record envied by every club in the country.
Their performance was below-par but that shouldn’t detract from the class Hearts showed as they climbed to fourth in the table. The prosperity is rather timely ahead of trips to Pittodrie and Easter Road in the next seven days. Wage delays continue at Tynecastle, however there is no lack of spirit on matchdays. Ian Black’s driven 20-yard opener preceded Elliott’s close-range conversion for the second. Both goals were created by Templeton’s piercing runs as the winger tormented Motherwell’s Tom Hateley on the flank.
Sergio jumped around in a fit of ecstasy in the wake of the second and clearly enjoyed seeing his players triumph in the face of adversity. At the end of a difficult week in which Andy Driver submitted a transfer request, Eggert Jonsson left for Wolves and Ryan Stevenson walked out completely, Hearts’ victory was nothing if not well-earned.
“It is a great victory, Motherwell are a very good team and to play like this was excellent,” said Sergio. “I think it was a tough game but we were tactically perfect, with a great attitude and we used the ball perfectly. We knew Motherwell would punish us for mistakes, so we made no mistakes and we had no troubles. The players were very focused and I am very happy with them. It’s a victory for the players, they deserve this and I am so happy for them.”
The manager was especially pleased for Elliott after he scored for the second week running. “He’s going to score more goals,” Sergio told the Hearts website. “He has that capacity but even when he doesn’t he offers a lot to the team with his work ethic and his discipline. The understanding he shows, positionally, is something he does very well.”
Sergio also allayed fears over Jamie Hamill, who was stretchered off during the second half with what appeared to be a serious ankle injury. “Jamie is a champion. He’s been fighting on with an ankle condition to play and he’s making a big effort for us. I love players with his character. With his strength and desire, he’ll return soon. It doesn’t look very serious and I hope he’ll be fine.”
Motherwell departed Tynecastle acknowledging that they failed to reproduce the form which had propelled them to such a lofty league position. “There’s no disgrace losing here,” said manager Stuart McCall. “It’s disappointing but no disgrace getting beaten by the side Hearts put out. We defended poorly at both goals and we didn’t create enough to cause them problems.
“We don’t have any divine right to go and win away from home just because we’ve done well this season. The first goal was crucial. You’ve got to give Hearts credit, their players and management, for the performance they put in. You look at their squad and they’ve got players like Taouil and Templeton, who were excellent. Black in the middle of the park as well. Two or three of our players had as poor a game for Motherwell since I’ve been here. Now it’s about how we bounce back and react to defeat.
“The players didn’t chuck it, they kept at it. We weren’t good enough and the best team won. We did miss Steve Jennings in central midfield but that’s nothing against Stephen Hughes. We lost to a very good Hearts team. Third place has never been a given for us, it’s about consistency.
“We’ve never mentioned third. We’ve had consistency this season but on any given day anyone can beat anyone. Hearts were at top of their game and we weren’t.
“If Hearts can keep the side they had out on the park, they will do well. Look who they brought on. [Rudi] Skacel and Driver, [Arvydas] Novikovas didn’t get on and [John] Sutton isn’t even in the group. I’m surprised they aren’t higher in the league even prior to their troubles. They have the third strongest squad in this league. They got the first against Dunfermline and did the same against us. Their individual players, Taouil and Templeton, are excellent footballers on their day. They were stronger than us.”
Keith Lasley, the Motherwell midfielder, was similarly effusive in praising Hearts. “I thought Hearts were excellent, deserved winners,” he said. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes and we’ve been faced with that ourselves. It isn’t easy. They still have good depth to the squad and if they play well they will cause teams problems. Their boys are playing for their futures here or elsewhere. Sometimes it brings you together when these things are going on off the park.”
SCORERS: Black (17), Elliott (28)
BOOKINGS: Motherwell: Higdon (38, persistent fouling), Hughes (63, persistent fouling)
REFEREE: Crawford Allan