Linesman's call breaks Hearts

NEVER mind who shot JFK. Just what did the assistant referee see?

That’s what thousands of Hearts fans were asking at Tynecastle after Andy Davis intervened in stoppage time to award Rangers the penalty which robbed the home side of a thoroughly deserved point from a pulsating encounter.

Substitute Mark Burchill’s 87th-minute equaliser looked to have earned John Robertson’s men a share of the spoils until the astonishing events of the dying moments of the match.

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As the clock ticked down towards the end of stoppage time with Rangers pressing desperately for a winner, Sotirios Kyrgiakos glanced a header wide of target to seemingly allow the hosts to play out the remaining few seconds.

The defender protested that he had been impeded by Lee Miller as he jumped for the high ball. But Scotland’s top referee Hugh Dallas, along with 13,842 other people inside the stadium - and the the Greek’s team-mates - didn’t see what all the fuss was about and awarded a goal kick as he trotted back upfield for the final passage of play.

Enter Mr Davis. It took some time for the Rangers players to notice the standside linesman with his flag raised, but the events which followed could well have a critical bearing on the SPL championship race and Hearts push for Europe.

As both sets of players converged on the right-hand corner of the ground to hear what the official had to say to Dallas, Dado Prso clashed with Craig Gordon as he attempted to wrestle the ball from the Scotland keeper. Eagle-eyed Dallas spotted the incident and promptly dismissed the Ibrox striker, Prso having already been booked. The whistler then returned to his deliberations with Davis and emerged pointing to the penalty sport, to the absolute disgust of Hearts. As the visitors celebrated, an enraged Saulius Mikoliunas charged towards the assistant and barged him in the chest, the Lithuanian immediately sent off by Dallas. It later emerged that the midfielder compounded his earlier infringement by then swearing at the referee in the stramash which followed, a transgression which is certain to see him hit by a second red card.

Rangers skipper Fernando Ricksen assumed the responsibility to confidently slot the winner.

Conspiracy theorists will no doubt see the incident as adding fuel to their argument that the Old Firm enjoy more than their fair share of breaks from officials. And it is hard to argue after last night’s drama.

Having already been in trouble with the Scottish Football Association following remarks about referees, Robertson did well to keep his anger in check as he addressed the assembled Press.

It would have been totally understandable, however, had he entered with both guns blazing.

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"The assistant referee refused to discuss what happened," he said. "But Hugh Dallas explained that the assistant had told him he had clearly seen Lee Miller pull down Kyrgiakos with both hands.

"We have seen the tape and that wouldn’t appear to be what happened.

"Kyrgiakos appeared to throw himself at the ball and Lee stood his ground in the box with his arms wide. Kyrgiakos actually then tried to punch the ball but missed it and it came off his head for a goal kick.

"Why were 12,000 Hearts fans incensed at the decision and why didn’t the Rangers bench appeal for a penalty?"

His opposing number Alex McLeish conceded he feared his team had dropped two vital points in the league race before the award of the "soft" penalty.

"Sometimes you don’t get them when you should and it looked of the soft variety," he said.

The final whistle moments after Ricksen’s strike brought a torrent of abuse towards the officials, a variety of missiles landing near Dallas and his assistants as they waited to leave the pitch, incidents which are sure to land the Tynecastle club in hot water with authorities.

It was all such a shame for the home side who had more than matched the league leaders.

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With Lee Miller deployed up front on his own and supported at every opportunity by the likes of Mikoliunas, Hartley and Cesnauskis flooding forward from midfield, Rangers found it difficult to cope with the hosts in the first half.

Robbie Neilson saw a shot deflected just inches over the bar after just seven minutes and had Cesnauskis showed more composure with 18 minutes on the clock, the outcome of the game could well have been different.

Compatriot Mikoliunas again demonstrated his skill on the flank by skipping past left-back Michael Ball and his dangerous cross was pushed into the path of Cesnauskis by Ronald Waterreus. The 17-times capped Lithuanian had a clear sight of goals just 10 yards out but sent his shot wildly over the top with an effort the watching Phil Anderton would have been more familiar with at Murrayfield.

Five minutes later and it Mikoliunas this time who saw a golden chance go by, except on this occasion it took a wonder save by Waterreus to keep the scores level.

McAllister’s free-kick into the area fell to the slightly-built midfield and he let fly with a vicious right-foot shot which seemed destined for the back of the net until the keeper somehow got a hand to the ball at his near post to turn it past for a corner.

With McAllister, Neil MacFarlane and Hartley doing a power of work in the middle of the park, Rangers playmaker Barry Ferguson was doing a good impression of the Invisible Man as his team were hemmed in by Hearts. It was as good a first-half as Robertson could have hoped for - the lack of goals apart - but the home side found themselves trailing within four minutes of the restart.

A pass from Prso sent Nacho Novo scurrying in behind the hosts’ rearguard and the Spaniard did the rest as he slid the ball past the advancing Gordon from around 16 yards out.

It was a cruel blow for the Jambos, who then found it difficult to enjoy the same kind of dominance as the opening period.

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Gordon produced a good parry to deny Ricksen from long range and then the excellent Christophe Berra - he kept his place with skipper Steven Pressley sidelined by illness - produced a magnificent goalline clearance to keep Prso’s lob out nine minutes from time.

His brave stop appeared to have proved vital when, with three minutes remaining, Hearts levelled the game.

Ironically, as it would prove, Miller was fouled by Kyrgiakos 25 yards from goal to give Hartley an ideal shooting opportunity. The midfielder’s effort appeared to be pushed on to the post by Waterreus and former Celtic star Burchill was there to gleefully ram home his second goal for the club.

It was not to be, however, as the Greek tragedy unfolded at the other end minutes later.

"I thought it was a fantastic performance from us," said Robertson. We hammered Rangers in the first half and got a good equaliser. We thoroughly deserved a point until we arrived at the incident which changed the game."