Hearts return to Tynecastle in just under a fortnight and it can’t come a moment too soon. They have scored only three times in four matches since relocating across to the nearby rugby stadium, earning four points from a possible 12.
This has proved a troubled residency back at the home of Scottish rugby. Kilmarnock are the latest to enjoy the stadium’s wide open spaces both on the pitch and in the stands, which even a good crowd such as yesterday’s 16,343 cannot hope to fill.
Hearts cannot wait to get back to a more partisan home ground, where intensity is guaranteed, if not points.
Even so, they looked set to bid farewell to BT Murrayfield with at least a point after Esmael Goncalves equalised Kris Boyd’s first-half opener. Somehow, and to Craig Levein’s evident dismay, they let this slip. It didn’t pass unnoticed that Jamie MacDonald, the former Hearts goalkeeper, was a significant figure in the lead-up to substitute Adam Frizzell’s winner.
MacDonald saved at Goncalves’ feet as the striker bore in on goal following substitute Cole Stockton’s through ball. From there it took around another 25 seconds for Kilmarnock to break up the pitch and score themselves.
The 19-year-old Frizzell, who replaced Chris Burke after 72 minutes, proved more clinical than Goncalves had been moments earlier.
This ability to take chances was perhaps the difference between the sides. Boyd once again underlined his striking instincts. What more is there to say about the 34-year-old striker? Criticised for his high-profile media appearances, when he often seems to talk more about other teams than his own, Boyd continues to prove he can walk the walk.
The way he held off Michael Smith to score his 31st minute winner was textbook centre-forward play. His finish past Jon McLaughlin was immaculate and he celebrated in time-honoured fashion – by gesturing to his stomach in recognition of the Hearts fans’ jibes about his physical condition.
What of Hearts? No analysis of their afternoon can omit mention of their injury troubles. Nor can it fail to relay their misfortune. Goncalves twice saw efforts hit the post before he finally saw his labours rewarded in fine style with just 14 minutes left with a raking shot that flew past MacDonald into the far corner.
He might have earned Hearts all three points too had he managed to beat MacDonald again after 85 minutes. That MacDonald spread himself expertly to block was not even the worst part of it as far as Hearts fans were concerned. Kilmarnock then broke up the right hand side, a move rounded off by 19 year-old Frizzell, who swivelled on the spot and then shot high into the Hearts net. It was a classic counter attack and lifts Killie above Partick Thistle to tenth.
They are now unbeaten in three away trips under Steve Clarke, including games at Rangers and Celtic. Boyd explained yesterday that the match was described by their new manager as “must win”. This comment suggested the visitors were alert to Hearts’ own troubles here.
But Hearts started brightly, MacDonald doing well to tip Goncalves’ shot against the post. It grew to become a personal duel between the pair.
A quick glance at the Hearts bench was all it took to tell a story. There was no one who stuck out as being able to change the game. Levein has particular problems at left-back, a position Hearts have tried to fill with five different players already this season. The latest is Daniel Baur, a tall, rangy centre-half who, at 18, made his first-team debut in an unfamiliar role.
With another teenager, the 19 year-old Lewis Moore, in front of Baur at left midfield, Levein was again placing great store in his young prospects.
After a spirited start, where they appeared to draw energy from an emotional minute’s applause for the late Tynecastle midfielder Stefano Salvatori, who died last week at the age of just 49, Hearts seemed to run out of ideas.
A poignant montage of clips of Salvatori was broadcast on the Murrayfield screens at half-time, to the Pink Floyd song Wish You Were Here, and these were a genuinely affecting few moments, as was the impeccably observed minute’s silence of remembrance for the war dead before kick-off.
Otherwise, Hearts fans seemed restless, as if inpatient for a return home. Boos filled the vast arena at half-time and full-time. Poor John Souttar bore the brunt of the fans’ frustrations. A free-kick he sent soaring over the heads of the players gathered in the box and straight out of play drew loud groans. An agitated Souttar then crashed into Jordan Jones a minute later and received a booking. The challenge saw the flailing Jones also take out team-mate Chris Burke and could have been interpreted more harshly by referee Kevin Clancy.
To cap this period of personal difficulty for Souttar he then wasted a corner by putting it straight out of play just before half-time. When the whistle blew, Hearts, and Souttar, knew all about it. But credit to them for sticking to their task, particularly after Goncalves was again thwarted by the post after 68 minutes.
Eight minutes later he finally beat MacDonald as well as avoided the woodwork with a well-placed shot into the corner from the edge of the box. Games normally last 80 minutes here, and will do so on Saturday, when Scotland host Samoa. How Hearts wish it were so yesterday.