The season may be reaching its conclusion but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything left to fight for. Motherwell are still grafting to make fourth place their own, Hearts had said that usurping Aberdeen to finish in the top two was not out of the question.
On Saturday, Motherwell aided their ambitions with a performance that was full of the desire they will need in the last few weeks, leapfrogging St Johnstone courtesy of the three points Lionel Ainsworth’s 28th-minute goal secured them,
Their guests, though, left Fir Park aware that a sub-par display had probably ruled out their chances of building on what has been a tremendous season.
This was the side they had pumped 6-0 the last time they met. That day Hearts had enjoyed home advantage and had benefited from the absence of some key players in the Motherwell ranks, but they still turned up the tempo and dazzled. They never came close to a repeat on Saturday, against a team that pieced together a winning group performance, built on verve, movement and determination, that extended their recent run of good form, stretching it to six wins out of seven.
For Motherwell it was a day to savour. For the away side, it was yet another trip to Fir Park that they will want to forget. It is seven and a half years since they last tasted success at that ground and they never even offered a pretence they could alter that with a pedestrian display that smacked of an end-of-season wind-down.
It was as though there was nothing at stake and if they had not shown an interest in moving up the standings then it would have been ok. But there is also the added financial incentive. Manager Robbie Neilson, pictured, has already drawn up a short list of signing targets and the extra £285,000 that would come with moving up a place would undoubtedly help in the negotiations with director of football Craig Levein and owner Ann Budge.
It looks unlikely now but midfielder Don Cowie, who made a return from injury as a late substitute, insists they haven’t given up hope of closing the eight-point gap in the final four games.
“That was disappointing. With Aberdeen losing on Friday night it was a great chance for us. We’ve talked over the last few weeks about how our target was them and so when you get that bonus of them losing it was up to us to go and take advantage. But we just weren’t good enough on the day. We need to find out why that was.”
Motherwell got the only goal in the 28th minute when Ainsworth, who went into the team in place of Hearts’ on-loan midfielder Morgaro Gomis, sent an angled drive past Neil Alexander. And playing a smart counter-punching game after the interval, they could have added more with Louis Moult forcing a full-stretch save from the Hearts keeper and Scott McDonald blasting over.
“We still have to play Aberdeen in a couple of weeks,” said Cowie, “and that could have made it very interesting if we had won. But we never. We have to accept Motherwell were the better team on the day.
“It’s going to be hard to get second now but you have to keep believing and keep going. There are still 12 points to play for. We’ll look at this game and where we went wrong and I expect everyone will hold their hands up and admit it wasn’t good enough. We’ve got four games to put that right. The boys have had a tremendous season so far so we don’t want it to end on a sour note.”
That is what the Gorgie side are desperate to guard against. While Motherwell are finishing the season in tremendous form, Neilson’s men are stuttering. Having wrapped up the shot at European qualifiers, no-one could claim the season has been anything but a success but going out on a string of fine results would give them momentum to carry into the new campaign.
“Winning breeds confidence,” admitted Cowie. “It will be a difficult season next year as well and football can change very quickly so you have to keep it going.
“We’ve got four games coming up and hopefully we can do well and get ready for next year.”