Hearts’ gutsy ten-man display staves off relegation

STILL beating. Still alive. Still a Premiership team.

Ryan Stevenson, right, with scorer Jamie Hamill after the final whistle as Hearts avoided relegation. Picture: SNS

Hearts have been doomed to relegation for weeks, for months or perhaps even since they had a 15-point penalty and a signing ban imposed on them for going into administration. But this morning, after a dramatic 1-1 draw with Aberdeen, their demotion is still not confirmed. They have to win all of their remaining games, beginning on Saturday at Partick Thistle, who are now officially safe from automatic relegation as a result of last night’s draw. And they also have to rely on St Mirren losing the six matches they have left.

That is not going to happen. But the fact is that twice in the past four days, Hearts have been staring relegation in the face and somehow pulled off a postponement. Against Hibernian, they were defiant from the start, adamant that, no matter how inevitable relegation might be, it was not going to come at the hands of their rivals. The atmosphere at that game on Sunday was the most joyous Tynecastle has seen this season, as Hearts won 2-0 to poop the party their neighbours had planned.

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Last night against Aberdeen was tougher from the start, and a lot tougher towards the end. Having weathered a storm in the first half and played their best football of the night in the early stages of the second, Hearts went a man down then a goal behind in quick succession. Danny Wilson walked for a second bookable offence, and Willo Flood beat Jamie MacDonald direct from the free-kick.

With barely quarter of an hour left to salvage the point that would keep them going into another game, Hearts would have been forgiven for running out of steam. Instead, they kept scrapping, and got the goal they needed four minutes from time when Jamie Hamill equalised with a penalty after Callum Paterson had been fouled.

“They’re not going quietly,” a delighted Gary Locke said of his players. “I said after the game on Sunday they’re improving, they’re getting better, they’re all certainly better players than the ones that started the season I think you can see that tonight again. They have applied themselves brilliantly, especially in the second half, against a top team. We were a wee bit unfortunate, but we were up against a top team and I thought we matched them all over the park.

“The pleasing thing was the reaction of the team,” the manager continued when asked about the effect of Wilson’s sending-off. “It would have been easy to put the heads down, but as usual we got the response we were looking and we were delighted to get the equaliser.”

Hearts went all out in search of the winning goal after getting that late equaliser, and had they got it, their fate would have been in their own hands on Saturday at least. A win against Thistle and they would definitely have avoided relegation for one more game. Now they have to win at Firhill and rely on Motherwell winning at St Mirren.

While the fight against relegation has been an inspiring one, Locke has always known that the most difficult challenge this season for his club has been off the field, as their administrators BDO try to complete a Company Voluntary Arrangement that would see the Foundation of Hearts become owners. Monday will see two meetings take place in Lithuania that could determine whether that CVA is at last agreed or BDO instead have to contemplate liquidation.

“Without a shadow of a doubt that’s the biggest battle we’re going to face,” Locke added. “It has been all season, but it’s coming closer now. Partick is a big game, we’re looking to try and win that, but the biggest battle we face is on Monday.”

Aberdeen at least had the consolation last night of gong back into second place thanks to their point. Manager Derek McInnes said: “I thought we bossed the game,” he said. “I’m not convinced it is a penalty – I’m not convinced the referee is in a good position to see it.”