Regret in taking only a point from third-placed side shows Hearts’ change of mentality

Conor Washington, grounded, slides in to score Hearts’ equaliser against Motherwell. Picture: SNSConor Washington, grounded, slides in to score Hearts’ equaliser against Motherwell. Picture: SNS
Conor Washington, grounded, slides in to score Hearts’ equaliser against Motherwell. Picture: SNS
If they can win their game in hand on Wednesday, Hearts are back in the thick of it. Lose to their nearest rivals, St Mirren, and the fight for Premiership survival will have been severely undermined. On Saturday, both captain Steven Naismith and international striker Liam Boyce failed to convert late opportunities into a victory. Instead the Gorgie side had to settle for a point.

But the past week proves that they have conjured up some fight. They just need to hope they have enough games left to make that count for 

Victories over Rangers and Hibernian gave them confidence heading into Saturday’s head-to-head with third-placed Motherwell and they were able to lean on that after they slipped a goal behind and show the wherewithal to come back at Stephen Robinson’s side.

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But there was regret as they headed up the tunnel, frustrated that they had failed to grab at least one more goal to take all three points. That was magnified by the news that relegation adversaries Hamilton had pulled off another superb victory to open up the gap between them to four points.

“The lads who hadn’t played let us know the Hamilton score when we got back in,” said Conor Washington, who exemplified the work ethic the Gorgie side will need to retain their top-tier status and weighed in with his second goal in two games to ensure a share of the spoils.

“It’s still very much in our hands. If we win our remaining games then we stay up. That’s got to be the aim.

“If you take the other results out of it and look at it from a Hearts perspective then it’s been a good week with the wins against Rangers and Hibs. And make no bones about it, Motherwell are a very good side. They’re third in the table for a reason.

“I think it was a good performance, especially the second half, and with the way the rest of the games have gone we’re disappointed not to get the three points.

“But I think nine more of those performances should get us over the line. This is what we need to build on.”

Maximum points could have been theirs had either Naismith or Boyce converted the late, late openings that came their way.

“Those late chances are encouraging even though we missed them,” said Washington, who says he is starting to feel more like himself after he was thrown back in at the deep end at the start of the year following a lengthy injury lay-off.

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“You put any of those lads in those situations again and nine times out of ten they’ll score them.

“If you watch them back they weren’t as easy chances as they looked. The pitch made it very difficult to be honest. It was really bouncy out there and those bounces just aren’t going for us at the minute. But with our performance levels we’ll, hopefully, eventually, get that bit of luck we need.”

It was an agonising end for the side stuck at the foot of the table and hoping to build up a head of steam. But the fact they were disappointed to end a match against a top team, preoccupied with the loftier business of qualifying for Europe, with only a point is a measure of how mentality, performances and expectations have altered.

It was Motherwell who took the lead in the 20th minute. Having looked solid at the back against Rangers and Hibs, a poor pass by Hearts centre-back Craig Halkett allowed Chris Long, inset, to close it down and then dash on to the rebound, round Zdenek Zlamal and fire an angled shot into the net.

The Fir Park side felt aggrieved not to get the possibility to extend their lead and, most probably, knock the stuffing out their hosts when Zlamal had to react to a visitors’ counter-attack less than ten minutes later. He charged out wide to challenge Jermaine Hylton, who hit the turf. The appeals were more strenuous after the match but at the time the referee saw no infringement and Hearts were given the latitude they needed to stage their comeback.

With more possession and territory, there were still signs of nerves but they worked hard to temper them and show some patience until Washington grabbed his equaliser only three minutes after the break.

Manager Daniel Stendel called for more composure and fewer long, hopeful balls. The fact is, though, despite the loss of some width when Sean Clare went off injured and Lewis Moore was substituted, there was still some positive link-up play on the flanks and in the corners that did help them carve out openings.

They did not reap further reward but it has bolstered belief as they head into the even more vital six-pointer against St Mirren in midweek.