ON this evidence fourth place means more to Motherwell than second place does to Hearts.
The Gorgie side have set their own standards this season and exceeded what could have been expected by a team in their first season back in the top flight. But having surpassed their pre-season goals in securing third place and a shot at European football next term, they have let things slide and are in danger of letting the campaign fizzle out.
Having seen Aberdeen lose out on the chase for the title, they had made no bones about the fact they wanted to usurp them in second place, giving them the perfect a platform to build from next season. But after all the talk, they failed to walk the walk.
It was not excused by the manager, Robbie Neilson, who knows they will now have to try to take something from next weekend’s match with Celtic if they are to maintain an interest in second place and stay in the chase for the £2m-plus in prize money that comes with the runners-up tag.
That is around £285,000 more than the money doled out to those who have to settle for third and with the manager looking to add more quality in the summer and stadium redevelopment in the works it is a figure that adds up to a whole lot more than simple bragging rights.
But yesterday, with the opening there to close the gap on Aberdeen who had slipped up in Perth on Friday, they failed to capitalise, the eight-point gap now looking bigger than ever, with time running out.
“There is a financial incentive for finishing second so that’s what we have to keep striving for,” said Neilson. “There are only four games left so we’ve made it more difficult for ourselves. We’ll still try to do it but today wasn’t good enough from us. We need to do better.
“If you want to go on and challenge for things you have to perform all the time,” he added, admitting that his men didn’t deserve anything from the game. “Motherwell were the better team. They had a better attacking threat and worked harder than us. It wasn’t acceptable.”
It was a far cry from the previous meeting when Hearts handed out a 6-0 spanking, setting a high tempo and grabbing that game by the scruff of the neck. Any reprise seemed highly unlikely at Fir Parkwhere Hearts last won in December 2010, and the recent form of Mark McGhee’s men.
Forced to make two changes, due to a bout of tonsillitis in the case of goalkeeper Connor Ripley and the terms of a loan deal which prevented Morgano Gomis playing against his parent club, the home side were unhindered by the shake up with Peter Samson keeping a clean sheet and Lionel Ainsworth coming in and producing a lively performance and the only goal. “I said to a couple of people before the game, ‘look out for Lionel today’, because out of all those who have trained really, really well, Lionel was on fire this week,” said McGhee. “We were really happy to be putting him in and giving him his chance.”
The goal came in the 28th minute, a low angled drive which found the far corner of Neil Alexander’s net, and was no more than the home team deserved but the frustration for them is that they couldn’t build on it.
Louis Moult and Scott McDonald had chances to add to the tally for the hosts but the former was denied by a diving Alexander who touched the effort onto the post in the second half and McDonald blasted a golden opportunity over the bar when the home side made the most of their counter-attacking ability. Moving the ball quickly, with one-touch passing, and nimble link up play, they worked their way from one end of the pitch swiftly and in numbers.
Calum Paterson forced Samson into a save but the capital side were left with what they deserved.
Motherwell (4-4-1-1): Samson; Law, Kennedy, McManus, Hammell; Johnson, Cadden, Lasley, Ainsworth; McDonald; Moult.
40: Hall for Law
46: Leitch for Lasley
83: Chalmers for Ainsworth
Unused subs: Ripley, Thomas, Watt, Campbell.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander; Paterson, Ozturk, Souttar, L Smith; Kitchen, Buaben; Nicholson, Walker, Djoum; Juanma.
68: Dauda for Nicholson
80: Reilly for Juanma
80: Cowie for Buaben
Unused subs: Hamilton, Augustyn, Pallardo, McGhee.
Referee: Andrew Dallas.