Speaking ahead of the game, Ann Budge has made it clear that anything less than third – the same position as last year – would be unacceptable, saying that the board and manager Robbie Neilson discussed the matter at a meeting on Friday and were happy that aim was achievable.
Having sent a wrecking ball through Motherwell’s hopes of leaving the capital with any share of the points, the fact is the team that was under scrutiny could now elevate themselves to second place by leapfrogging League Cup finalists Aberdeen and the Ibrox men if they can build on this performance with another victory, midweek, against Mark Warburton’s men.
“I was pleased about the way we performed, right from the start,” said Neilson. “We showed a lot of energy. But games previously, even when we have drawn, we had a lot of good periods and a few bad periods. I don’t think we had that many bad periods today and when we did, we didn’t get punished. We gave up a couple of chances from set-plays, but it keeps our goal average up, the strikers are scoring now. Crisis over.”
It is that superior goal difference that would allow them to claim second spot. But in the shorter term it was just a way of showing the fans that the recent results didn’t have to be the norm. Having finally seen a striker get multiple goals, with the physical presence, pace and persistence of Bjorn Johnsen unsettling the visiting defence and serving up his side’s first two goals, the defence, which had shipped ten goals in the last four matches also decided that it was time to stand firm, regaining the belligerent form of earlier in the campaign to hold out for a clean sheet.
That required a few goal-line clearances, with Faycal Rherras and John Souttar both blocking efforts, denying Ben Heneghan, Lionel Ainsworth and Scott McDonald.
“We had some efforts cleared off the line but that was down to determined defending by them,” said Motherwell manager Mark McGhee. “They did brilliantly so all we can say is that we made some chances and didn’t take them. Credit to them for that but those chances were neither here nor there – we were well-beaten.”
And they were. This was a Hearts display that will have ignited hope among the fans that the recent blip was simply that. But for that to have any real credence a positive result against Rangers is key.
“It is huge for us. It is a massive game, a great game to be involved in,” said Neilson. “It is a while since Rangers have come here. We have had good results previously against them here, I think the players are already excited and looking forward to it.”On the back of this, that is understandable. Dangerous from the outset, Jamie Walker set the tempo and the agenda, driving at the Motherwell rearguard and firing off a couple of long range efforts to test Craig Samson.There was a blow for Hearts in the 17th minute when Callum Paterson clashed with Heneghan as the Gorgie full-back sent a glancing header just wide of the post. Both players got up with blood pouring down their faces and while the Motherwell defender was able to play on, the swelling around Paterson’s eye meant he had to be withdrawn eight minutes later. His manager expects him to be back in contention for Wednesday’s match with Rangers, though.
With 31 minutes gone, Johnsen got his third goal of the season. Running on to a through ball from Arnoud Djoum, he showed great composure to round goalkeeper Craig Samson and slot the ball into the net.
He doubled his tally for the game and the season just after the break. Motherwell had tried to shake things up with a couple of half-time substitutions but their plans were shredded in the 49th minute when Johnsen leapt to head a Robbie Muirhead corner past Samson and the despairing Ainsworth on the line.
In the 66th minute Jamie Walker got the goal his performance merited. Capitalising as Hearts broke swiftly and having been released down the right, he sent an angled drive from inside the area past Samson.
After that it was simply the clean sheet that mattered and given the determination on show, it mattered a lot.