It was solid, it was unspectacular – and it was just about everything that Hearts would have wanted as they put an end to their recent winless run.
Almost fittingly, an untidy goal, credited to Peter Haring but owing an awful lot to the touch applied to it by Motherwell’s Charles Dunne, was enough to seal the three points, but the outcome confirmed the impression gained from performances in recent games that the Tynecastle side are getting back on track.
As the scoreline suggests this was an afternoon where the art of defending was to the fore and it’s hardly a coincidence that the Hearts rearguard are looking like an unyielding proposition once again. Christophe Berra is back and not only that he’s looking like he’s never been away.
“It’s mission accomplished”, reflected a content Craig Levein. “It was very competitive as Motherwell games always are. Our players have been on a difficult run and confidence gets affected. We really needed to start picking up points again to get a foundation to build on. Overall I’m really pleased.”
Asked if he was also happy with match referee Willie Collum, Levein managed a laconic “yes”, followed by a grin, before going on to praise the contribution of the recently returned Berra. “You saw how important he is to us. I feel good about getting him back and Steven Naismith coming back soon will be a real boost for everybody.”
As a spectacle this game started with all the sparkle of festive illuminations but all too quickly the dimmer switch was applied. There was almost a stunning opener for the visitors as Curtis Main swung a majestic curling effort into the Hearts net after just eight minutes. However a bit of shunting in the build up by the brawny striker meant that Mr Collum was immediately signalling for an infringement. Underlining that almost any incident can be contentious in the eye of the beholder Motherwell manager didn’t share Levein’s sanguine view of the officiating. “I think we’ve had a perfectly good goal disallowed,” Stephen Robinson insisted.
The pace was almost eye watering in the early stages with the hosts retorting with a fine run by Demetri Mitchell that saw a low cross delivering into the six yard box towards the feet of Steven MacLean which needed brave goalkeeping by Mark Gillespie to turn it to safety. As Hearts continued to press down either flank another testing cross from Mitchell was met with a powerful header from Haring. Whether it was going to hit the target was another matter, but Dunne was unable to get himself out of the way and it cannoned off him and somewhat softly into the net as Gillespie was wrong-footed to give the Tynecastle men the lead.
Perhaps it was the baffling nature of the breakthrough that led to both sides battening down the hatches after this. It became a battle of athleticism and resilience – for the most part played in a fair competitive fashion, but shorn of genuine incident and severely rationed in terms of chances. It was telling that the nearest we came to seeing another goal before the interval was when Gillespie got his geometry all wrong and just about allowed a harmless lofted effort by Marcus Godinho drop into his goal.
The endeavour, hustling, pressing and smothering didn’t ease off after the interval and though each side took turns to advance menacingly there was more heat than light when it came to any end product. Defences were so on top that the men standing behind them – Gillespie and his Hearts counterpart Zdenek Zlamal – were for the large part idle. With the hosts having that vital advantage it was a happy enough way for them to see out the game and get back to winning ways.