When Gary Locke flew out to Turkey on his family holiday last June, the Hearts manager, having put in the groundwork to arrange a deal, was confident he would return to put the finishing touches to the signing of Kris Boyd.
Instead his bid to bring Scottish football’s deadliest striker to Tynecastle was quashed in an instant when he received the phonecall confirming the dreaded news that Hearts had been forced into administration. Ever since, Locke has never been allowed to escape the feeling of “what might have been” regarding his former Kilmarnock team-mate.
Boyd’s goals alone – never mind his general presence and leadership – have directly accounted for 11 of the Rugby Park side’s 30 points this season as they have pulled well clear of Hearts, the division’s lowest scorers, in the battle to avoid automatic relegation.
Hypothetical it may be, but upon watching the 30-year-old ruthlessly dispatch his third double in as many Kilmarnock victories over Hearts this season, it was impossible not to wonder just how different things might have been for the two teams had the most prolific striker in Scotland’s top flight been wearing maroon instead of blue and white stripes over the past eight months.
Boyd’s doubles have had a match-winning impact in the two Rugby Park encounters between the sides this term, while he scored two of Killie’s first three to help lay the foundations for the 4-0 Boxing Day success at Tynecastle.
Certainly on Saturday, in a game in which the visitors more than held their own for long periods, it is hard to imagine Kilmarnock having picked up all three points had Boyd instead been playing for Hearts.
After watching his old mate hit a quickfire brace in the opening minutes of the second half to put Kilmarnock 3-1 ahead in a match in which Hearts had hitherto been marginally the better team, Locke ruefully put his head in his hands when asked about how things might have panned out had he landed his primary summer target.
“There’s no point in looking in the past, but he was certainly a player I’d have loved to have brought to Hearts,” said the manager. “Obviously everything that went on in the summer put paid to that. It was clear for all to see that he was the difference between the two teams. In the three games we’ve played against them this season, he’s been the difference.”
Another source of regret for Locke as he trooped out of his old stomping ground on Saturday evening was the manner in which his side switched off in the early moments of the second half, allowing Boyd to take his tally for the season to 18 and turn the match in the hosts’ favour.
“People will look at the scoreline and think it was a thrashing but there was nothing in the game. The first five minutes of the second half have cost us,” reflected Hearts’ manager. It was hard to argue with such an assessment. Before the interval, Hearts had dealt pretty well with the windy conditions and rutted pitch and, without carving out many clear chances, had been slightly the better team. They also had to show their resilient side to recover from the loss of a freakish first goal. Just seconds after right-back Jordan McGhee had sent a 26th-minute free header wide of Craig Samson’s goal from a Kevin McHattie corner, Hearts were hit by a sucker punch. Rory McKenzie burst down the right flank and fired a powerful cutback into the danger area which ricocheted off the helpless Danny Wilson, who was racing back towards his own goal, and flew past goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald.
The visitors responded superbly to this cruel blow, with Dale Carrick equalising three minutes later when the little forward, who had been restored to the starting XI in place of Paul McCallum, pipped the advancing Samson to a Callum Paterson head-flick and dinked it into the net from just inside the box.
Hearts were well worthy of a 1-1 half-time scoreline and, having marshalled Boyd well before the break, Locke was entitled to feel that his side, with the wind at their backs, might go on and take all three points in the second half. Any such hope was all but extinguished, though, as Boyd suddenly found his feet, twice seizing on slack Hearts defending to finish clinically in the 49th and 51st minutes.
The first came when he nicked possession off Jamie Hamill on the edge of the box, outmuscled the Hearts midfielder on his way into the danger area and slotted a low angled shot beyond MacDonald from around six yards out. Hearts were rattled and Boyd swiftly put daylight between the teams as he emphatically smashed a shot high past MacDonald at the second attempt after being teed up on the edge of the six-yard box by a McKenzie cutback.
Hearts once again responded well, with the increasingly-impressive Sam Nicholson tucking home a low shot from eight yards out after a measured cutback from substitute Billy King in 68 minutes. Just as they had done when Nicholson scored his first Hearts goal in a 3-3 draw at St Johnstone in January, the Jambos sensed another comeback from 3-1 down. However, the wind was taken out of their sails in 72 minutes when Jeroen Tesselaar skinned McGhee and crossed from the left for Michael Gardyne to convert Kilmarnock’s fourth goal.
McCallum, who had come on in place of the injured Hamill on the hour mark, saw his goal drought continue when he had a late header ruled out for offside as Hearts, with defender Brad McKay sent on in attack for the last few minutes, pressed to the end, but ultimately that dire couple of minutes when Boyd was left to wreak havoc proved the pivotal period in the game.
It was the second game in succession that Hearts had shipped four goals, but the performance in Ayrshire was much-improved on the limp display away to Motherwell the previous weekend. “Last week we got beat 4-1 by Motherwell and the performance wasn’t good enough, but it was certainly a lot better this week,” said Locke, whose side are 20 points adrift at the foot of the table with just 27 points to play for. “We competed a lot better and I was delighted with the first half.
“There wasn’t a lot we could do about the first goal, and we did great to get back in the game but the first five minutes of the second half cost us. Even then, we showed a lot of character to get back to 3-2 and looked like we might have got an equaliser, but then we lost a sloppy fourth goal. I’m disappointed for them because they put a lot into the game. When you score two goals away from home, you expect to get at least a point but individual mistakes have cost us.”