For Kilmarnock, it was another away triumph at Tynecastle – they’ve won as many league games there as Hearts this season – and back-to-back victories in the Premiership after a run of seven straight defeats.
The led 3-0 deep into the second half and looked to be cruising until a crazy couple of minutes from Kilmarnock keeper Laurentiu Branescu gave Hearts a flicker of hope. Branescu conceded a penalty, allowing Sean Clare to kick-start a late rally with a successful conversion.
After being booked for conceding the spot-kick Branescu was then sent off for throwing the ball away as Clare tried to get it from him to restart the game. But while Liam Boyce, Steven Naismith, Andy Irving, Jamie Walker and Conor Washington all tried their luck, Kilmarnock held firm.
Under siege, they eventually succumbed to a Craig Halkett strike but, with three vital points to fight for, they held firm.
The pre-match buzz in the capital had been one of positivity despite the fact they had not beaten the Rugby Park side on league duty at Tynecastle since 2016.
Killie’s form had cost their manager his job and the Gorgie side had exhibited greater examples of attacking intent in recent weeks, with the performance against Rangers highlighting what they are capable of when everything clicks.
Hearts got out the blocks well and within the first minute they had forced two corners and applied sustained pressure.
Young Euan Henderson had a run and dig in the fifth minute and although it went just wide it demonstrated Hearts’ intent. Irving then sent in a corner, which Halkett headed just over. But there was a lack of cutting edge. Too hurried or careless with the final ball, the decision-making and service to the front line was not conducive to breaking through the Killie backline. And as they settled into the game, the visitors’ Rory McKenzie came close with an effort that had to be steered over the bar.
In an increasingly open match, Hearts had plenty of possession but it was Kilmarnock who looked the more threatening and opened the scoring in the 23rd minute. Eamonn Brophy caused the initial damage, cutting inside and forcing a block from Joel Pereira. From the corner, Stuart Findlay won the second ball and rose above the home defence to head home.
The second goal came in the 39th minute. Alan Power played in Chris Burke and, coming in from the right, he waited for the outrushing keeper to commit and then dinked it over Pereira and into the net. It was the kind of incisive ball and composed finish that set the sides apart.
Five minutes after the restart Killie made it three. Brophy cut inside and, given far too much room, drilled an effort through Pereira, who should have done better.
Stendel threw on more and more attackers as he tried to salvage something from the game, with Uche Ikpeazu, Washington and Walker all joining the fray. But the biggest impact was made by Branescu.
With time ticking away he clattered into the in-rushing Washington and while the home fans welcomed the referee’s decision to award a penalty, they were less happy when he flashed a yellow card rather than red. They needn’t have worried.
Clare stepped up to slam the spot kick into the net and in the aftermath, Branescu stupidly threw the ball away. It earned him his second yellow and gave Hearts the platform to push for points in the final period.
They got another goal back from Halkett and buoyed by their extra man and an extra five minutes added on at the end of the 90, the home side threw everything at it. But they came up short.