“IF they don’t take any belief from this result, they never will.” The words of Hearts manager Gary Locke echoed around the media room deep within Pittodrie.
Darkness had descended outside after a match which offered a chink of light to the visiting players in their battle against relegation. Key decisions went their way and they left with a rousing 3-1 win, which reduced their deficit at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership to 13 points.
Locke and Billy Brown, his assistant, have both complained at their freakishly young side not getting breaks this season. Dylan McGowan’s disallowed goal against Dundee United and the unjust dismissal of Jamie Hamill at Inverness back up their argument. At Pittodrie, Hearts enjoyed the good fortune which has eluded them for a while.
Aberdeen totally dominated the first half and scored through Niall McGinn after a 26th-minute corner. However, the Northern Irishman then had a penalty saved by the impressive Jamie MacDonald. Had he scored, the hosts would have been out of sight given Hearts were on the ropes. Aberdeen were denied what manager Derek McInnes believed was a clear penalty seconds earlier when Peter Pawlett’s shot hit Dylan McGowan on the goal line. McInnes felt McGowan should have been dismissed for handling but it was the Aberdeen substitute Barry Robson who was red carded on 54 minutes. He had committed two bookable offences – encroaching at a free-kick then bodychecking Jason Holt – and with that the game swung in Hearts’ favour.
Jamie Walker produced an equaliser after rounding Jamie Langfield and instantly confidence levels rose amongst the visiting players. Callum Paterson plundered a second – despite Aberdeen continuing to press forward – and in stoppage time Ryan Stevenson hit a stunning third into the top corner to round off an incisive Hearts breakaway. It was a result out of nowhere given the Tynecastle side had taken just one league point from 24 prior to kick-off. Aberdeen, in contrast, had won their last four games in all competitions without conceding a solitary goal.
Locke will pray the weekend’s dramatic events can breathe life into Hearts’ season. “We have our goalkeeper to thank again for keeping us in the game,” he said. “Aberdeen played with a lot of confidence in the first half but I thought every Hearts player was magnificent in the second half. You could say the game changed with the red card but it’s always difficult against ten men. Sometimes it can work against you.
“I felt we made the right changes at the right time and in the second half I thought we thoroughly deserved the win.
“Last week, against St Johnstone, is the first time we were disappointed with how we performed. The players responded in the right manner this week. The effort they gave was superb and I’m delighted to actually get the result our performances have deserved.”
Hearts players threw jerseys embroidered with poppies into the travelling support at full-time as a way of saying thank you. “I felt it was important to go to the fans,” continued Locke. “We had the poppies on our shirts and, with McCrae’s Battalion, everybody knows it’s a huge thing at our football club. The players were given two shirts and they thought it was important to throw them into the crowd. It was a great gesture.
“After the Hibs game, we thought that was us turned the corner a little bit. If they don’t take any belief from this result, they never will. We were against a really good Aberdeen team and I thought we performed brilliantly, especially in the second half.”
McInnes looked bemused at how the game had panned out for Aberdeen. “The first half was as comfortable, relaxed and enjoyable as I’ve been watching my team play,” he said.
“It was a team full of confidence, on the front foot, playing with a lot of fluency, great movement and a great tempo. There was a lot to be pleased about.
“With the sending off, I accept Barry is a yard and a half ahead of the wall and it was his job to charge, so it’s a yellow card for encroaching by the letter of the law. I’ll be keeping a keen eye to see if that’s the case in other instances.
“The second booking, Barry was trying to get out of the way of it. He hasn’t pulled the boy [Holt] back or tried to block him. The boy has been bright with his feet but he’s overrun the ball and Ryan Jack was about to deal with it. Then we’re down to ten men for two minor offences. I think, with the second yellow, there has to be an understanding there. It changes the flow of the game.
“In defeat, you look at everything. We could show more conviction and should’ve taken our chances, even in the second half. We need to learn as we go along because we’re far from the finished article. However, Saturday was the biggest gulf I’ve seen in this league in terms of performance.”