Hearts made a mockery of views proffered by some that their title challenge could be derailed by off-field strife as they returned to the top of the Premier League after a week in which chief executive Phil Anderton and chairman George Foulkes departed.
In the lead-up to the match, caretaker manager John McGlynn had said the players were hurt by suggestions that events in the boardroom could drag them down on the field. His team certainly performed as if intent on proving they firmly remained in the frame and goals by the outstanding Paul Hartley, Rudi Skacel and Michal Pospisil did not make for a haul reflecting the home side’s superiority.
The win over a dismal United was so efficient and uncomplicated, it emphasised once more that, with or without a permanent manager, the squad of players which Vladimir Romanov’s investment and George Burley’s astuteness had delivered to Hearts can expect to win most weeks.
Hartley and Skacel were pivotal figures in Hearts confirming their championship challenging credentials over the first three months of the season. However, the form of both appeared to have shaded as McGlynn attempted to pick up the pieces, but they were back to their potent best against embarrassingly impotent opponents. Rarely did Gordon Chisholm’s men even succeed in creating the impression they could make a contest of the afternoon. From the moment Hartley opened the scoring in four minutes, the visitors, quite shamefully, seemed resigned to their fate.
The tone-setting strike would have pleased Romanov no end, not least because the architect of it was Saulius Mikoliunas. Burley didn’t seem to much care for the little Lithuanian and this was understood to have been a sore point for Romanov. The result was Mikoliunas earning his first start in nine weeks. It was one he justified instantly, showing terrific poise and balance to slalom his way past several United players with a 20-yard run before threading through to Hartley. After the midfielder’s run had taken him in behind the visitors’ backline, he slotted the ball into the far corner for his fifth goal of the season.
Peter Canero receiving a booking after a dive in the penalty box six minutes later was one of the few occasions a United player actually enjoyed good position in their opponents’ area. Otherwise, the Tannadice men just seemed to sit back and await the worst. Having earlier almost foxed Derek Stillie with a swerving effort that the goalkeeper saved messily, Skacel scored in the 24th minute with a free-kick from 20 yards. An oddity of a goal, the Czech didn’t seem to strike the ball particularly powerfully, but he put sufficient curl on it for Stillie to misjudge the flight and slap the ball into his own net.
In fairness to United, nothing went for them on the afternoon and that included a 50th minute penalty after Steven Pressley had brought down Barry Robson. Picking himself up, the midfielder blasted his spot-kick straight at Craig Gordon and headed the rebound straight into the goalkeeper’s arms.
The salt in the wound for United came seven minutes later when Hartley charged down an attempted clearance by Alan Archibald before galloping to the byline and cutting the ball back for Pospisil to roll into the net. By then, the bouyancy and bravado had returned to the warblings of the home faithful.