STRIDING away from others towards the Europa League, Hearts took a giant, loping leap on Saturday. The performance left much to be desired but winning whilst nearest challengers St Johnstone and Ross County were dropping points was akin to breaking into full sprint from a trot.
Hearts needed a response after two successive losses and respond they did. A 1-0 win over Kilmarnock wasn’t entirely convincing considering they missed two penalties during the 90 minutes. Nonetheless, this wasn’t a day for niceties. It was a day for digging in and motoring towards the goal of European competition. Hearts are now 11 points clear of both Saints and County in third place in the Ladbrokes Premiership. They have a game in hand on the former and two on the latter.
Jamie Walker’s early goal settled this match after his penalty-kick was pushed on to the post by the outstanding Kilmarnock goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald. The Hearts winger followed up and converted the rebound with a looping finish in what was the decisive moment of the afternoon. MacDonald saved another penalty from Abiola Dauda in the second half but still found himself on the losing side, somewhat unfairly given his own display.
“Getting a result does a lot for the confidence. I thought the performance in the second half could’ve been better. We spoke about that after the game,” said Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach who signed a new two-and-a-half-year contract the day before the match. “We set a standard that we want to get to and I think we didn’t get there on Saturday in the second half.
“There’s always that feeling that you want to push them. We can’t just accept it and say: ‘Yes, we got three points, let’s just move on.’ There are a lot of things we need to do better. It’s just a maturity that comes with players so that they recognise certain situations. If we had got the second goal it would have killed the game, but it got more difficult and then I thought we defended well.”
Substitute Juanma Delgado wasted the perfect chance to score a comforting second goal in stoppage-time. He knocked a ball in behind the Kilmarnock defence and broke through from his own half but lacked the required conviction when he reached the edge of the opposition box.
“I think he maybe tried to over-complicate it a bit,” said Neilson. “I think if he gets into that position he should just have a shot. He came back inside, maybe trying to get the ball on his left foot or play in Dauda, I don’t know. I think, when you get there, have a shot. It didn’t cost us at the end of the day but we want to get shots at goal because it gives everyone a lift.”
Kilmarnock had several scoring opportunities and showed lots of attacking threat under new manager Lee Clark. Craig Slater’s wayward shot could have put them ahead in the first minute before Stuart Findlay pulled Prince Buaben down for the penalty minutes later. Conrad Balatoni’s flicked header was cleared off the goal line by Callum Paterson before the interval.
Sam Nicholson’s header from Paterson’s right-sided cross early in the second half struck the inside of the back post. Paterson was then forced off with a shoulder injury and could miss several weeks. When a second penalty was given for handball against Josh Magennis, it should have been game over with nine minutes remaining. Dauda stepped up this time but again MacDonald got down low to the ball to turn it on to his post. He then produced impressive reactions to repel Nicholson’s follow-up shot.
“That’s what Jamie is good at – shot-stopping,” said Neilson. “I spoke to the players before and I said: ‘If we get a penalty, get in for that second ball because we know he is very good at that. It’s his forte.’ Anything around about him, he will save it. He has saved two penalties at Tynecastle and there won’t be too many people who have done that.”
Clark could only bemoan his team’s failure to break the Hearts rearguard, which became increasingly stubborn as the second half wore on. Tope Obadeyi ran and ran at the opposition from a wide-left position and needed more support. Hearts were under sustained pressure at times but managed to see the game out.
“We had a great opportunity to go 1-0 up when Craig Slater dragged his shot wide,” said Clark. “It was a penalty for Hearts but we didn’t have to concede the foul. We didn’t follow in the penalty so we didn’t help our goalkeeper out. Three or four of us were static at the edge of the box. Jamie made a terrific save, and did it again in the second half. We’ve put Hearts under a lot of pressure without testing their goalkeeper enough. I feel we deserved something from the game.
“We knew Hearts would be physical and strong. When you have someone with Julien Faubert’s experience, you give him a chance when things aren’t going right. I thought he looked a class act when he came on and he’s probably only about 60 or 65 per cent match fit.”
Clark is justifiably confident that his team can avoid the relegation dogfight come the last few weeks of the campaign. The Ayrshire club remain second bottom of the league, eight points ahead of Dundee United. “We can’t affect anybody else until we play against them,” he continued. “The attitude, application and desire has been terrific from the players so far. We definitely have enough and we just need to believe we’ve got enough.”