Hearts 0-2 Motherwell: The Mother of insipid displays

THE intention was that Hearts would become the hunters by beginning their post-split fixtures in sixth position with aspirations of overhauling fifth-placed Motherwell and possibly fourth-placed Hibernian.

On Saturday they reverted to being hunted by a Lanarkshire side resembling a pack of wolves, their bite sinking deep into the European ambitions of Jim Jefferies.

Offering such paltry resistance is no way to conduct a Europa League onslaught, nor is it any way to secure a long-term future for those whose contracts are nearing expiry. Jefferies took down all of the above in a mental notebook that is vast running out of pages, so much has he had to learn about his squad of late.

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Michael Stewart, the Hearts captain, delivered an anonymous first-half display and found himself hooked at the interval. There must be questions over whether he will don the famous maroon shirt again after a performance that reflects the status of someone who will be a free agent in a matter of weeks. Anyone who assumed Stewart's mind was elsewhere on Saturday may not be far from the truth.

Collectively, Hearts began the match in positive fashion but were quickly forced into submission by a tenacious and inventive Motherwell side. Since their comfortable 3-1 win over Hearts last month, Craig Brown's team had endured four successive defeats. Their determination to atone and redirect their own European pursuit outshone the will of their hosts by some distance.

The first half was open and entertaining but looked to be ending goalless despite a sequence of chances at both ends. Then Steven Saunders won a header from Steven Hammell's corner and prompted a goalmouth scramble which ended when he prodded the ball over the line on 42 minutes. Three minutes later, John Sutton rose to glance Tom Hateley's free-kick beyond Jamie MacDonald, leaving Hearts dumbfounded.

The hosts' principal attacking threat had come down the left flank through the impressive David Templeton and Lee Wallace. Brown cleverly extinguished that outlet for the second half by placing Sutton in front of Wallace on Motherwell's right flank, thus stopping the supply of balls to Templeton. By full-time Hearts had exhausted all their ideas and their lack of application infuriated Jefferies, not to mention conceding another two goals from set-pieces.

"I can't tell you much of what I told the players," he joked. "I don't know how I find time to smile because I was raging. For the first 15 minutes we had two teams going at each other.

"Templeton and Lee Wallace down the left gave them a torrid time. Two chances fell to Gary Glen, the first he sent over the bar and the second he snatched at with his left foot. We can't have any complaints but the two goals were set plays. Motherwell were worthy of being two up.

"They were better at passing, holding the ball, and they worked harder. They also had two strikers prepared to battle and fight. We didn't do enough of that at the other end. We were better in the second half, got tighter and competed better.

"But I told them at the end the least I expect is a bit of desire. We looked like a team who had settled for getting into the top six. That's not acceptable. We need to go and win the next three games but we won't do it with application like that. Lee Wallace was outstanding but there were few others who can have confidence going into next week.

"I'm not prepared to divulge what I told the players. I've said to them what's expected here. I've been here long enough to know it. The teams I've had here always gave 100 per cent to win the game and with that you can defend them if it doesn't happen. If the players want to be part of that, games are running out. If they don't they will maybe find themselves elsewhere. I said all week this was a big game but Motherwell wanted it more than us."

Stewart started his first match in two months after overcoming a calf injury but, intriguingly, Jefferies left the captain's armband with Marius Zaliukas.

Asked if he could explain the paucity of Stewart's performance, the manager replied: "He looked like he couldn't get near to people, maybe he was still feeling his injury but I put Blackie on at half-time. I learned more about the players who played on Saturday than I have done since I came in.

"We played a team in the top half, a team who don't have the resources we have. That's twice they've done it to us. In the middle of the park we struggled and it had to be changed. We were a bit more solid but the problems we have are up front. Ryan Stevenson, for not being a striker, showed more awareness up front than anyone recently after coming on. We will solve that problem in the close season."

Next week, of course, brings an even bigger encounter against Hibernian at Easter Road. Jefferies opined that Hearts should not be discounted from the European race entirely, although he accepted they are now outsiders.

"We need to start next week," he said. "What you do the week before a derby has no difference, but the game takes on extra significance. Europe is not all done but it will be if we don't take part. We were deservedly beaten by a side who were hungry and more determined. I want to win all three games that are left but I can't wait till next season to get things sorted out. I'm already speaking to the owner about who we can get in."

Templeton explained Hearts do not intend giving up on the Europa League. "The result is really disappointing because we had a chance to get closer to Motherwell," said the winger. "They were the better side on the day. We had to try and get back into the game because we played poorly in the first half. We were second to every ball.

"There's a chance we could still catch them but every game is hard now. We aren't guaranteed victories. If we play better next week and get the three points then hopefully teams above us will drop points. That would give us confidence for the Dundee United game and they will have the cup final on their minds.

"Then it's Celtic here. We want to be playing in Europe and if United win the cup then fifth place would get us in there. A few good results would get us to fifth, but even better would be fourth."

In contrast to the anger and frustration residing within Jefferies and Templeton was Brown, whose relief at returning to winning ways was clear. "We played well in the last two matches but lost against Celtic and Dundee United. I think people thought I was off my head when I said we'd played well," he said. "I think we played better against Dundee United but lost because of lapses at the back. This confirms we're not too bad a team.

"We have the Old Firm plus Hibs to play now and we look forward to that. Our goalkeeper took a lot of criticism last week but he was determined to make amends for alleged mistakes against United. I think he did that. He was very assured throughout so we need to credit him. Also, Steven Saunders is an example of the superb youth system Archie Knox and I inherited at Motherwell. It was started by Chris McCart and Gordon Young has continued it. It was great to see him get his first goal for the club."