This was the weekend when many expected Hearts to be overhauled at the top of the table. Instead, in front of a buoyant support who chanted that they will not be moved, they extended their lead.
The defiance in the stands was simply a reflection of the stubbornness on show on the pitch as a team forced into a rejig following long-term injuries to John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu and a persistent issue with Peter Haring’s hernia, defied the naysayers and produced a performance that blew Aberdeen away.
The Pittodrie outfit, who have proved the most consistent challengers to Celtic over the past four seasons, had no answer to the intensity and intent of their hosts, who showed teamwork, pace, footballing intelligence and some street smarts as they took the upper hand in a game punctuated by fouls and a plethora of yellow cards. It also served up three penalties, two of which were converted.
While Aberdeen were poor in the opening 45 minutes, Hearts were impressive and, although they struggled to reach the same standards in the second half after Derek McInnes reshuffled the pack and sent Niall McGinn on to make something happen, there was something just as admirable in the way they stood firm to prevent the visitors taking anything from the contest.
“We’re not going to be pushed over,” said defender Jimmy Dunne, who was brought in on loan to plug the gap left by the crocked Christophe Berra and will now have to adapt to the loss of centre-back partner Souttar. Against Aberdeen, he linked up with Clevid Dikamona and the duo dispelled any pre-match suspicions over the possible weakening of the team’s resolve. “The good run we’ve had isn’t a coincidence. That’s been a lot of games now, a lot of wins and we’re really starting to take shape. We’re not easily pushed over. We showed that,” added Dunne, pictured.
“It was tough, a scrappy game. We started really well, which gave us a great chance. But Aberdeen changed how they played in the second half and caused us a few problems. We showed unbelievable character to see it out and stay on top.
“I think most teams in our situation, with the injuries we’ve had, wouldn’t have the same attitude. But the lads who came in showed unbelievable character. And the lads who were already in the team stepped up a level.”
They had to be patient though. Despite dominating possession it took until the 36th minute to make the breakthrough, when a ball whipped in from wide was headed home by Arnaud Djoum. The second followed quickly, though.
In an increasingly testy match that was peppered with penalty claims, the first one awarded by referee Kevin Clancy, in the 42nd minute, appeared harsh, as the falling Lewis Ferguson was penalised when he reached down to break his fall and the ball struck his arm. There appeared little intent but the spot-kick was given and Steven Naismith slammed it past Joe Lewis. A cruel blow but an honest reflection of the first-half play as Hearts could have enjoyed an even bigger lead at which would have given them a more comfortable second half.
Instead, there were moments when they had backs to the wall as Aberdeen fought back.
They reduced the deficit when McGinn was brought down by Marcus Godinho and Gary Mackay-Steven converted the spot kick. The goalscorer also had the chance to level with minutes remaining but Zdenek Zlamal made a wonderful diving save, while James Wilson was left hanging his head in embarrassment after ballooning a golden opportunity over.
But whatever Aberdeen could conjure up, as they sought out a result that might kickstart a season in which they have so far been stuck in the bottom six, Hearts proved more than equal to it and Lewis had to make a fabulous save from a second Naismith spot-kick after Shay Logan was penalised for a pull on Sean Clare and the keeper also denied Djoum and Demetri Mitchell from point-blank range.
With rivals Hibernian losing to Celtic, it was enough for Hearts to extend their lead at the top to three points.
“We don’t really look at the league table because it’s early days,” said Dunne, who was involved in some late controversy when an idiotic Aberdeen fan hurled a pitchside mic at the defender, who collapsed to the turf but was able to pick himself up more effectively than Aberdeen. “We know we’re top. That’s all we need to know. But the attitude is brilliant. It’s game by game.”