In what is now oft referred to as the business end of the season, this was job done by Hearts. It was an unadorned 90 minutes played in an unforgiving chill, settled by an early goal from Sean Clare that won’t get any plaudits for artistic merit, but when you’re looking to nail down a top six finish it matters not a jot.
With injuries to key players continuing to regularly punctuate their campaign – the latest joining the casualty list being Steven Naismith – all Craig Levein can try to do is keep the show on the road and continue to gather up valuable points. This was their first league win in five games and it should go a long way to ensure they finish on the right side of the Premiership’s great divide.
“It was never going to be a classic in the conditions,” was the Hearts manager’s honest assessment. “So we had to have the mindset that if the game became scrappy and bitty that we have to be able do well in those situations that were going to determine who would win the game. It pleased me that we didn’t play particularly well and won.”
“We’ve still got a lot to do. But this will give us confidence. It’s not always playing well that gives you confidence – it’s actually winning. Sometimes winning ugly gives you more confidence than anything. If we had come here and hadn’t got anything it would have a lot more difficult for Tuesday night’s replay with Partick.”
That confidence factor wasn’t much in evidence in the early stages of this game as the home side strode forward with some gusto and the Hearts defence were unconvincing in their attempts to mop up the danger.
A well struck effort from Andy Dales could well have had the beating of Zdenek Zlamal before the boot of Ben Garrucio deflected it clear of the goal.
There wasn’t nearly the same kind of spark down at the other end but with Levein opting for the fearsomely muscular pairing of Uche Ikpeazu and David Vanecek there was always the prospect that the Dundee rearguard would be bullied into mistakes. They certainly struggled in the aerial battles and 50:50 challenges but they couldn’t use that as an excuse for the manner in which they cheaply conceded the game’s only goal.
A ball hit into the home penalty area by Arnaud Djoum should have been routinely mopped up despite the presence of several Hearts players. However, an almighty fankle ensued with the ball rolling into the path of Clare who had a straightforward task in dispatching it into the net from only six yards.
“I’m disappointed that we don’t stop the cross,” was Dundee manager Jim McIntyre’s rueful reflection on the game’s decisive moment. “It’s an old fashioned stramash, there’s bodies lying on the deck and they get a toe poke to it.”
At least Dundee did respond with some spirit to try get back on level terms and they almost did so immediately.
Kenny Miller took Zlamal by surprise as he went for his near post with an angled drive and only the Czech ‘keeper’s outstretched leg denied an equaliser. This block was matched by a fine parry by his Dundee counterpart Seny Dieng, who denied Callumn Morrison as the game briefly swung from end to end.
Alas this was to be the zenith of entertainment in this encounter and, committed though both sets of players were, it descended into some fairly unappetising stodge as we crossed into the second half. With Christophe Berra and John Souttar once again forging an impressively obstinate partnership in the centre of the Hearts defence, the hosts’ endeavours had a distinctly forlorn look about them and for long spells Zlamal was left shivering in the wintry blasts that swept across Dens Park.
That was to change in the closing ten minutes as Dundee gave it one last heave. Twice in space of 30 seconds Zlamal felt the heat as firstly a Miller header threatened to drop into the net and then having pushed it clear he had to adroitly contend with a powerful follow up volley from substitute John O’Sullivan. It was enough to wrap up the points and move the visitors level on points with Kilmarnock in fourth place.
“Their keeper when he’s needed to make big saves, he’s made them,” added McIntyre. “It’s really disappointing as it’s another game I feel we should have picked up at least a point in. We need to make sure we’re good in both boxes not just one.”