All they had to do to register a third straight win, and move to within two points of rivals Hibs in the Ladbrokes Premiership, was defend one final free-kick. Initially, it didn’t even look like they’d have to do that. Craig Tanner’s deep cross almost travelled right out of play, but was saved by a header from Andy Rose. From there things got rather frantic. With bodies charging and missing the loose ball, Chris Cadden managed to hack out a shot. That found Curtis Main alone at the back post, where the new signing planted his header on target. Even though Jon McLaughlin was able to stop the shot, the goalkeeper had got his bearings all wrong and was well behind the goal-line.
Desperate to see his record remain in tact for Tuesday’s trip to Celtic Park, McLaughlin vociferously appealed to the referee and the assistant. Others within the Hearts ranks may have grumbled about the length of injury-time awarded by Willie Collum, which enabled Motherwell to have that final roll of the dice. For Hearts manager Craig Levein, though, the most egregious decisions took place earlier in the match when the hosts were denied two penalty claims. The first saw Cedric Kipre block a cross with his arm, the second had Ross Callachan getting to the ball before defender Tom Aldred, who took his opponent down.
“For the life of me I do not know how we didn’t get two penalties in the first half,” said Levein. “I asked Willie at half-time and he said their player definitely touched the ball. He didn’t. It’s the most blatant penalty you’ll see all year. Then the other one, the handball, is blatant.
“So I’m disappointed in Willie’s performance, I’m disappointed for the players and the effort they put into the game after two particularly hard matches recently and to be in front going into the fifth minute of injury time then to lose a goal was extremely disappointing.”
Hearts had the better of the opening period. Callachan was first to go close on ten minutes, side-footing a volley that hit the outside of Trevor Carson’s right-hand post.
The hosts soon stepped it up a gear and had a number of opportunities. Anthony McDonald blazed over after initially showing great composure inside the penalty box to get the ball on to his strong left foot.
Callachan then had his claim for handball against Kipre, before Steven Naismith and Callachan, again, both struck well-hit efforts right at Carson.
In the midst of this, Motherwell managed to put the ball into the back of the net with their first real chance. Main would rue the linesman’s intervention on this occasion, after he flicked Aldred’s goalbound shot past McLaughlin.
The centre-back then got away with one at the other end as he slid in on Callachan inside the penalty box. “The tackle itself,” Levein said, “Cal takes an extra touch in the box, the player comes in from the side and the path of the ball doesn’t change. I just don’t know where he [Collum] dreamt that one up from.”
Main went close again with a header five minutes before the half, before one of Hearts’ three additions this window, Manchester United loanee Demetri Mitchell, hit the post right before the break.
Though the wing-back would have the first chance of the second period, curling over from the edge of the area, it was the away side who forced the more clean-cut opportunities from then on. Tanner jumped on a mistake from Aaron Hughes to run through on goal, only to be caught by Christophe Berra as he went to shoot. A similar chance then presented itself to Main, who beat McLaughlin with a shot which lacked accuracy and power.
Hearts sent on new signing Danny Amankwaa with the hope of finding a winner, though it was fellow substitute David Milinkovic who made the breakthrough, in the right place to unleash a thunderous effort past Carson after the visitors failed to clear a free-kick cross.
Levein would also lament his side’s failure to see the game out. Well sub Deimantas Petravicius missed a header from point-blank range following a Tanner cross three minutes into stoppage time. Then, on the counter attack, Milinkovic decided against taking the ball into the corner and instead conceded possession with a crossfield pass to Naismith, setting in motion the chain of events which would see an end to Hearts’ clean sheet record.