SOMETIMES football carries no logic whatsoever. A Hearts team which matched Liverpool succumbs to defeat at home to the SPL’s bottom club, who hadn’t managed a league goal let alone won a game prior to yesterday. This was a triumph for gritty defiance, resilient defending and outstanding goalkeeping, all showcased by Dundee at Tynecastle.
Hearts dominated possession and fashioned 18 attempts at goal to the visitors’ three. Dundee recorded just one shot on target, the second-minute penalty-kick which Ryan Conroy stroked beyond Jamie MacDonald. John Sutton missed a penalty for Hearts shortly after, and the second half became a procession towards Rab Douglas’s goal. Yet there was no way through as the veteran goalkeeper and his plucky defenders stood firm.
David Templeton’s craft was sorely missed following the winger’s transfer to Rangers. John McGlynn, the Hearts manager, conceded afterwards he could also have used the predatory instincts of Rudi Skacel to source a goal from nothing. His team misfired in attack despite Ryan Stevenson’s return and the late shunting of Marius Zaliukas into a striker’s role.
“I don’t think it was anything to do with playing in Europe in midweek,” said McGlynn. “We put ourselves in a difficult situation because we’re the team that wanted to come out of the traps, get a goal and cause Dundee problems. We gave them the massive lift they needed. They got a goal from a penalty kick, which seemed the only way they were going to score.
“In two games against Liverpool we concentrate immaculately. Then we don’t concentrate from three o’clock in this game. We played ourselves into the game, we got a penalty kick, but we didn’t take that chance. Dundee got a massive lift from that, too. We had to keep passing and passing and trying to get round them. They were a goal up and we created chance after chance with balls across the goal. Rab Douglas made two or three really good saves and one was cleared off the line.
“I can’t fault the players for their effort. We were pushing late in the game and had plenty legs in the team. We put on Ryan Stevenson, Andy Driver and Jamie Walker. We changed it around, threw Marius up front, we had corner-kicks and free-kicks and everything. It was just one of those days when that wee bit of composure, creativity, finesse, guile in the final third deserted us. We played the whole of the second half in their half but they headed, blocked and cleared and generally defended very well. We put loads into the game and got nothing out of it. We deserved more.”
Dundee signalled their intent immediately as Colin Nish set about unsettling the Hearts defence. He was impeded by Zaliukas upon entering the box to earn his team’s penalty in only the second minute. Conroy confidently despatched the ball low into the bottom corner for Dundee’s first goal in this season’s Scottish Premier League.
As expected, Hearts then went on the offensive seeking a quick response. They appealed for their own penalty when Gary Irvine sprung over the top of Dale Carrick - making his first senior start - to head clear. That claim was denied but, when Lewis Toshney pulled Ryan McGowan’s shirt, referee Craig Thomson instantly pointed to the spot. But Douglas threw himself to the right to beat away Sutton’s penalty.
Callum Paterson drove past Matt Lockwood and Iain Davidson in possession only for Douglas to save his eventual 20-yard shot. The goalkeeper also denied Carrick from the same distance.
That theme continued after the interval. Stevenson replaced Sutton to make his second Hearts debut. The search for an equaliser resumed straight away with Arvydas Novikovas, Paterson and Stevenson all trying shots which Douglas dealt with. The goalkeeper was rescued by Conroy on the hour when the midfielder cleared Stevenson’s header from Danny Grainger’s corner off the Dundee goal line.
Consternation grew at Tynecastle the longer Dundee remained defiant. There were plenty of balls into the box and long-range attempts, but none yielded the equaliser. In stoppage time, with Zaliukas now playing centre-forward, Paterson headed Grainger’s free-kick across goal only for the ball to career off the head of substitute Walker and bounce wide.
That just about summed up the hosts’ misfortune on a frustrating day, which ended with jeers from some home supporters. McGlynn was just as frustrated as they were. He yearned for a striker before Friday’s transfer deadline but wasn’t furnished with one. His only new recruit was Stevenson, a midfielder to trade.
“I’ve not really been in the loop with regards to bringing players in. It’s really done at a higher level,” said McGlynn. “I’m really coaching the team, preparing the team and picking the team. Bringing players in isn’t exactly my brief.
“Rudi Skacel is hard to replace with 18 goals last season. I’m sure you’ve asked yourself the same question I’m asking: ‘Why has Rudi Skacel not got a team?’ I don’t know the answer to that. I’m sure there are more teams than Hearts would fancy him. Is he pricing himself out of the market? I don’t know. We certainly would’ve liked another striker. With free agents, I suppose there is still the opportunity for that to happen.”
Regardless of what happens in attack, no team prospers without a strong defence. Barry Smith, a reliable full-back himself in his day, has assembled exactly that at Dundee. “We tried to make ourselves hard to break down because we’ve been conceding goals too easily,” explained the visiting manager. “We wanted to be more compact and it worked.
“Rab Douglas was brilliant. He produces performances like that all the time. I don’t want to single him out because it was a great team performance. Everyone gave every last ounce of effort. Big Rab made a save from the penalty and he had a couple of other great saves after that. We defended from front all the way back.
“We have started games well, put teams under pressure and it worked for us today. I’m delighted for the boys because we put so much effort into all our games. To get this reward is great for them. Tynecastle is a difficult place to come and win so we need to take confidence from winning here. It’s going to be a long, hard season, but if we keep performing like that then we give ourselves a great chance.”