However after coming back from one down to win courtesy of a late Paul Hartley free-kick this restored some much needed pride and relief in his team.
They went into this clash against Ian McCall’s side requiring a victory to ensure they remained in the top six, the prospect of dropping into the bottom half of the SPL a scenario almost unthinkable for the team tagged as hot favourites to finish third for the third year running.
To suggest to anyone who had witnessed the first 44 minutes of this game that the home side would emerge triumphant, never mind score three goals, would have been regarded as wishful thinking at best.
As the interval approached, Hearts were trailing to Barry Robson’s 19th-minute deflected free-kick and had goalkeeper Craig Gordon to thank for still having a chance to take anything from the game.
Gordon was helpless as the Tangerines broke the deadlock, Robson’s left-footed free-kick taking a wicked deflection as the ball looped high into the top right-hand corner.
With Hearts once again lacking penetration and devoid of attacking ideas, the breakthrough came as no surprise and the home side had Gordon to thank for keeping them in the game six minutes from the break. Mark Wilson’s cross into the area from the right was turned goalwards by Robson but with the ball seemingly destined for the bottom right-hand corner of the net, the Hearts keeper used all of his 6ft-plus frame to dive at full stretch to finger-tip the ball to safety.
The crowd was understandably restless and the boos were beginning to ring out as move after move came to nothing. The Gorgie faithful’s dark mood, however, changed unexpectedly 60 seconds from half-time, with United keeper Tony Bullock handing Hearts the equaliser on a plate. Phil Stamp swung in a deep corner, Bullock came off his line and got nowhere near the ball and there was Steven Pressley to sidefoot home a rare goal from open play.
Robertson had made some steps into the transfer market the previous week and brought in striker Lee Miller on loan from Bristol City.
The former Falkirk front man probably didn’t expect to be introduced to the fray so quickly but drastic measures were required from the hosts and the 21-year-old emerged for the start of the second period as Joe Hamill’s replacement.
And what a baptism! Within three minutes of taking the field for the first time in a maroon jersey he had put his side ahead. Paul Hartley’s free-kick was knocked back into the six-yard area by Kevin McKenna and Miller was in the right place at the right time to nudge home as simple a goal as he could have hoped for.
It was a swift and unlikely turnaround for the Jambos but any relief they may have felt at turning the game on its ahead evaporated five minutes later when a free-kick was rolled into the path of Alan Archibald and the defender sent a left-foot shot screaming past Gordon from fully 25 yards out.
While a point would have been a pleasing outcome for United, McCall’s men had the scent of victory in their nostrils again and Gordon pulled another save out his impressive repertoire to throw himself to his left to tip behind Mark Kerr’s 20-yard thunderbolt in the 70th minute.
While the keeper’s superb stop from Robson in the first half may be looked upon as the turning point, the actual outcome of the match hinged on a contentious decision by erratic referee Mike Ritchie.
The whistler ruled that Paul Ritchie had fouled substitute Stephen Simmons in a dangerous position some 20 yards from goal – the former Jambo and his boss were adamant he had played the ball, while Robertson conceded the award to be on the soft side.
Lady Luck ensured a further twist to an already intriguing affair with Paul Hartley’s free-kick taking a noticeable deflection off the United wall on its way past Bullock.