Steven Naismith returned to the Hearts starting XI for the first time in almost two months but even his presence couldn’t arrest the Tynecastle side’s disastrous slide as a double from Sam Cosgrove secured the points and moved Aberdeen into second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
The last time these teams met, in October, a Hearts victory saw Craig Levein’s men motor ten points clear of the Pittodrie club. That gap would reach 13 a few days later. Fast forward to the present and this result moved the Dons six points clear of Saturday’s opponents, a mammoth 19-point swing as Derek McInnes’ side recorded their eighth league win in ten matches.
On paper, the side Naismith came back into was roughly as strong as the one he left when a knee injury forced him out of action for a number of weeks. The main difference is that confidence in the maroon ranks has completely plummeted in that time. A collective where every individual seemed to play with real verve has been reduced to a hesitant shell of its former self.
The game was only 63 seconds old when Aberdeen took the lead. Stevie May capitalised on a defensive mix up to send in a cross from the left. Sam Cosgrove rose highest and directed his arching header past Colin Doyle – who was making his debut in goal – and into the top corner of the net.
Aberdeen had the ball in the back of the net for a second time on 26 minutes as Shay Logan’s cross from the right sailed in but the visitors were rescued by referee John Beaton, who blew for a foul by Lewis Ferguson on Doyle.
The visitors were limited to one opportunity in the first 45 minutes. A training ground set-piece routine almost worked to perfection with two passes releasing Steven MacLean all alone in the centre of the box. However, the veteran striker took a dreadful first touch that took him away from goal, narrowing the angle and allowing Joe Lewis to race from his line and block the shot. Hearts, however, should have had a penalty for an incident away from the play, as Naismith was wrestled to the ground by Max Lowe.
“I’ll take you back to the game at Tynecastle: we had two penalties awarded against us, one of which was very soft,” said McInnes. “It’s standard for Hearts these days to be looking for penalties. I just want to make it clear: the better team won today.”
There came a moment in the first period that perfectly encapsulated the self-belief issue in the away side’s ranks.
Demetri Mitchell received the ball on the left-wing but instead of trying to go one-on-one with Logan or swing it into the box, the wing-back worked it backwards. This continued until the ball had gone from Aberdeen’s right-back area to the Hearts right-back area, where the visitors conceded a throw. The hosts almost pounced as they took it quickly, allowing Graeme Shinnie to break into the box and attempt a outside-of-the-foot effort that sailed wide. The contrast in proactivity was startling.
Aberdeen’s star man was undoubtedly Cosgrove. The big striker not only dominated his opponents in the air, he continually chased and pressured the Hearts defence, often forcing them into errors or stealing the ball back himself and starting a counter.
He was given the chance to double his tally on 69 minutes when Beaton pointed to the spot after Christophe Berra was adjudged to have pulled down Scott McKenna at an Aberdeen free-kick. Cosgrove made no mistake, sending Doyle the wrong way and notching a sixth goal in his last four games. “You hear bits and pieces,” said Cosgrove, referring to prior criticism from the support now singing his name. “If anything it’s motivated us even more. It’s great to hear them chanting for me. I try not to let it get to my head but I’m really thankful for it.”
Craig Levein even decided to take Naismith off with 13 minutes remaining after the attacker received a yellow card in a flash point with Stephen Gleeson. With games against Hamilton and Hibs before the winter break, this was a case of the Hearts boss cutting his losses, as his side slumped to their seventh defeat in their last ten.
Unfortunately it wouldn’t be quite so simple as Mitchell saw red in the game’s closing stages after receiving a second booking for a foul on substitute Dean Campbell, a challenge Levein described as “sheer stupidity”.