Five points clear of Ross County in sixth, it is now a question of whether they can hold on to fourth place and enter the Europa Conference League in the third round. They lead Dundee United by a point, but their last match is away at champions Celtic, with the Arabs heading to Dingwall. The advantage of finishing fourth is clear: more guaranteed prize money and an August entry to the competition rather than mid-July.
Not that those details concerned a jubilant home support at full-time after goals from Joe Efford and Rickie Lamie secured their return to continental football. They were involved in the Europa League qualifiers two years ago, losing to Hapoel Be’er Sheva, and this will be their fifth stint on the continent in ten years.
That is a fine record for a club of such size. Midway through the season, when Graham Alexander’s men could not buy a league win, finishing in the top half was in jeopardy, never mind qualifying for Europe.
They were given a helping hand here by Hearts manager Robbie Neilson, who decided to rest his first-choice goalkeeper and player of the year Craig Gordon. With the Scottish Cup final against Rangers only ten days away, deputy Ross Stewart was given some rare game-time and was caught cold for Motherwell’s opener when he shunted a fairly straightforward shot into the path of Efford, who gladly took the gift just three minutes in.
Hearts played some really nice football in the first half and competed well despite having nothing tangible to play for. They equalised via the speedy Josh Ginnelly on nine minutes and thereafter dominated the first half, with Peter Haring and Andy Halliday very impressive in midfield. They failed to build on the leveller, Liam Kelly twice saving well from Ginnelly and Liam Boyce, although Hearts will feel they should have been awarded a penalty when rookie referee Matthew MacDermid – taking charge of his first top-flight match – failed to point to the spot for a blatant push on Ginnelly.
Hearts’ night appeared to take a dark turn though on 73 minutes, though, when defender Toby Sibbick had to leave Fir Park on a stretcher. He was in audible agony after an aerial challenge with Motherwell forward Kevin van Veen, clutching his left knee. Fears over his participation for the Hampden clash with Rangers, however, were allayed by Neilson after the match with only minor nerve damage predicted. Hearts are already sweating over the fitness of fellow centre-half Craig Halkett for that match. At least Michael Smith made an appearance off the bench – his first since mid-February – to soften the blow a little. Ibrox-bound John Souttar, however, remained on it.
The night belonged to Motherwell, however, who made an attacking change at the break by bringing on their main striker Van Veen, who has been battling a stomach bug, for defender Juhani Ojala in a bid to get the goal that would send them into Europe.
They understandably improved and regained the lead on 56 minutes. Haring’s defensive header from a corner fell right at Lamie’s feet and he made no mistake from close range.
That was enough to give the Steelmen victory, who had to withstand some late Hearts pressure in seven minutes of stoppage time. Passports at the ready for Alexander and Co.