Worry for Hearts as Dundee join Dunfermline in title pursuit
For Hearts, the worrying aspect of this season’s two league defeats is the common denominator: Dynamic opponents out to beat them to automatic promotion.
For Dunfermline at East End Park in November, read Dundee at Dens Park on Saturday. Starting 2021 with a loss still leaves the Edinburgh club five points clear at the top of the Championship, but both Dunfermline and Dundee are in pursuit.
The Tayside club’s approach at the weekend mirrored that of the Fife side when they beat Hearts – tenacity, aggression and energy right from kick-off. They were 2-0 up at half-time through Jordan McGhee and Danny Mullen. Jonathan Afolabi’s late penalty completed a deserved 3-1 win after Andy Irving countered for the visitors.
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson complained that Don Robertson was referee at both Dens and East End, but his team lacked the vibrancy to gain control on both occasions.
With only promotion acceptable from a truncated 27-game league campaign, they can’t afford many more slip-ups. “We were possibly caught a bit deep in the first-half and they were winning a lot of the second-balls and turning us in behind all the time,” explained Irving.
“They were just putting us under pressure and making it hard for us to get out and get up to their half. So that is something we have to look at. Maybe we can be the team that starts like that and eventually we get the ball down and then pass it.
“We have to do the dirty side as well, especially if the pitches at this moment and time aren't fantastic. It's hard to pass the ball right from the start, which teams know, sothey're going to get in our faces and make it difficult for us.
“We need to learn that quickly. Teams are just going to start flying in and kicking the ball in behind so we have to make sure we're ready for that from the word go. There's only 27 games this season and that's us played ten now – eight wins and two defeats.
“We reacted well from our defeat at Dunfermline so now we need to react well from this and go on another winning run. We certainly don't want too many more wake-up calls like this in the weeks ahead.”
Asked if complacency had crept in after building that five-point advantage, Irving replied: “Not at all. The squad is very professional and we have players who have played at a very high level. I don't think it's any complacency. I think it's just been an off-night.”
Saturday was a must-win fixture for Dundee’s ambitions of winning the title outright. McGhee, a former Hearts player, said his opening goal didn’t mean any more because it came against his old team.
He left content that his current side handled pressure to extend their unbeaten run to six matches.
“In terms of aspirations to win the league, we couldn't afford to lose any more ground. We always knew it was a big game but we believe in ourselves. After the last six weeks we knew if we could put in that performance we would give anyone a game.
“It has happened at a great time against a good team. We need to keep doing it in every game.”