TWENTY points behind the rest with only 30 points to play for, Hearts can do little now but wait to learn when their relegation will be confirmed. The date is uncertain: the fate is inescapable.
Motherwell4 - Hearts 1
SCORERS: Motherwell: Vigurs (18), Ainsworth (37), Sutton (65), McFadden (74); Hearts: Paterson (69)
Referee: J Beaton
Both before and after games, Gary Locke and his players continue to talk of fighting all the way, of picking up points wherever they can, and of exerting even a little pressure on the four teams above them. But while the words remain defiant, the body language tells a different story: one of dejection, perhaps even despair.
If Hearts lose their next two games – at Kilmarnock this weekend then at home to Dundee United a fortnight on Friday – they could go down as early as Saturday 22nd, when the four teams immediately above them are all in action. Failing that, there is another chance exactly a week later, when the quartet play again while Hearts are inactive.
If results do fall that way, it would be a kinder coup de grace than one of the alternatives. Namely, to be relegated as a result of losing to Hibs the following day, Sunday 30th, when the fourth Edinburgh derby of the season takes place at Tynecastle.
The permutations are still complex, and asking a club how they would like to be relegated is a bit like inviting a condemned prisoner to select his method of execution. Nonetheless, it can be taken for granted that, if they have any say in the matter, Hearts will be desperate not to have their demotion finally confirmed by a defeat at the hands of their city rivals.
Had they kept up the form they showed earlier this year, they would now be odds-on to keep up the fight beyond the split. But that brief run of two wins and two draws from four league games feels like a long way off now, for all that the last match of the four only took place a fortnight ago.
Despite their limitations this season, Hearts have put up a spirited display in the bulk of their games, including some in which they were solidly beaten. On Saturday, by contrast, they looked a sorry bunch, lacking both in self-belief and self-motivation.
Sam Nicholson was one honourable exception, playing from the start with verve and enthusiasm. Locke tells his squad to go out and play football without feeling any pressure: the 19-year-old winger takes his manager at his word.
Dale Carrick, who came on at the start of the second half after a reshuffle involving Brad McKay and Callum Paterson, was another whose positive attitude was evident. He almost scored within minutes of coming on, weaving his way into the left side of the box before crashing a shot off the crossbar.
By that time, however, Hearts were 2-0 down. Paterson and Paul McCallum had begun together up front, and on a heavy pitch it seemed the plan was to get the ball up to them quickly. But Hearts’ high balls out of defence were invariably swept up by Stephen McManus and Shaun Hutchinson and, while Nicholson made some inroads down the left, his crosses were dealt with just as competently.
Motherwell had better ideas, and players more equipped to carry them out, as James McFadden and Iain Vigurs showed when they combined for the opening goal. No matter how difficult the surface was, those two still succeeded in slicing open the visitors’ defence with a neat interchange of passes which ended with Vigurs shooting home from close to the penalty spot.
Ryan Stevenson sent a free kick wide and McCallum headed over as Hearts attempted a swift reply, but the contest was effectively ended before half-time when the impressive Lionel Ainsworth grabbed a second. McFadden managed to keep the ball in on the bye-line, and his high ball to the right found the Englishman in space. With no-one to close him down, Ainsworth had time to pick his spot and send a sweetly-struck 20-yard shot past Jamie MacDonald.
Motherwell’s performance was all the more impressive given the depletion of their defence because of injury. Already without several squad regulars, they were forced into a further change shortly before their second goal when stand-in left-back Zaine Francis-Angol went off injured. He was replaced by Euan Murray, who slotted into the back four calmly and confidently.
Carrick’s miss was as close as Hearts came to a revival of fortunes, because by the time they did find the net through a Paterson header they were 3-0 down. McFadden was again the instigator, managing to steer the ball through to Sutton just as he was being brought down on the edge of the area. Through on MacDonald, the striker coolly prodded the ball home.
Paterson’s goal from a Kevin McHattie corner was a reminder of the lapses that led to Motherwell conceding three times in each of their previous three games. Significantly, however, it took Stuart McCall’s side only five minutes to score again, with McFadden providing the finish himself, this time with a back-header from a free kick.
Clear in third place, Motherwell now have sights set on Aberdeen, four points ahead of them in second. Although, as Ainsworth explained, their mindset is to be more ambitious than that.
“We are looking at it as if we can catch Celtic,” he said. “We aren’t trying to be second, we’re trying to go for first spot. We’ve had a few injuries recently, but we’re trying to overcome that and have a few coming back in the next few weeks to give us a right good push with competition for places, which will mean we’ll have to perform. We’ll try to finish as high as we can up the league.”