CRUELTY to children would be an apt way of describing it.
The young Hearts players trudged disconsolately from the Easter Road pitch at the end of last night’s pulsating Edinburgh derby. Only four of them were over 21, yet they had shown remarkable defiance and resolve against an experienced Hibs side. They still finished with nothing.
Most visibly shattered was the youngest of all. Jordan McGhee, just 17 years old, endured a horrible start to the New Year by conceding the penalty from which Liam Craig converted the game’s decisive goal seven minutes from time. His needless challenge on Lewis Stevenson as the ball was running out of play gifted Hibs a winner in a match which looked destined for a draw at that stage.
It was, not for the first time this season, inexperience costing Hearts dearly. This 2-1 defeat leaves them 16 points adrift at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership. Ironically, McGhee would not have played last night had Danny Wilson been available. The Tynecastle captain was sidelined by a stomach bug and it seemed especially cruel that young McGhee, outstanding in many of his senior appearances this season, should make such a crucial error when deputising.
On the balance of play there was only one winner in this frenetic encounter Hibs dominated possession and, on occasions, were shooting at Jamie MacDonald’s goal at will. They hit the bar in the first half before James Collins pivoted cleverly to lash the opening goal on 61 minutes. Eleven minutes later, Hearts substitute David Smith set off on a fine solo run past Scott Robertson and Michael Nelson which led to the equaliser, via deflection off Ryan McGivern.
That led to the excitement spilling over slightly. One Hearts fan ran on to the pitch celebrating but a Hibs fan from the East Stand took exception and also entered the field. Both were seen swinging fists at one another as stewards intervened.
Then came the late penalty, which left the Hearts manager Gary Locke enraged. Stevenson attempted to go round McGhee to get to the ball before it reached the byline. The Hearts player put his body across his opponent and simultaneously lifted his leg to block Stevenson’s run, hoping to usher the ball out of play. Referee Bobby Madden pointed instantly to the penalty spot and Craig produced a composed low finish from 12 yards.
“It’s very difficult to take. We work our socks off to get back into the game and to lose such a controversial goal, it’s a hard one to take,” said Locke. “I didn’t think it was a penalty at the time. I’ve seen it again. Jordan goes across the lad but the ball is already out the pitch. You see that sort of thing happening week in, week out and there’s never a foul given. It’s a sore one because the referee gives a penalty. That happens all the time and there’s never anything given, yet he’s decided to give a decision.”
Locke and his assistant Billy Brown remonstrated with officials at the end of the game in the middle of the pitch. “I haven’t asked for an explanation. I’m not wanting an explanation,” continued Locke. “I just hope 2014 is better for us. Some of the decisions we’ve had over the course of this season have been nothing short of incredible. I just hope our luck turns a wee bit. Hibs put us under a bit of pressure, especially at set-plays which we expected. They are a big side so we knew we had to be on our toes. I thought we defended really well and worked our socks off to get back in the game. It’s a controversial decision which has cost us a point.Jordan is distraught because he feels he didn’t do anything wrong. Yet again we’ve been hit by a referee’s decision that we’ve got to take on the chin.”
Ryan Stevenson captained Hearts in Wilson’s absence and said no-one in the squad would be criticising McGhee. “It’s a silly mistake and one that’s cost us but there will be nobody giving him a hard time. He’s just turned 17 and he’s going to have a massive future,” he said.
Excepting that one error of judgment, McGhee formed part of a defence which stood up admirably to Hibs’ dynamic forward line. Collins and 18-year-old Jason Cummings used good movement to their advantage but, with Brad McKay, Dylan McGowan and Kevin McHattie all on form, they were repeatedly rebuffed.
“I was proud of the players,” said Locke. “They gave us everything again. I just hope that, in the second half of the season, they get the wee breaks that they deserve because we certainly haven’t had any so far.”
Jamie Walker tried to create a break for himself in the 76th minute when he went past Ryan McGivern and fell inside the penalty area. He was swiftly booked for diving and incurred the wrath of the Hibs players.
Asked about the increasing gap at the bottom of the table, Locke remained resolute in his belief that Hearts can avoid relegation. “It’s definitely not too much. There are still a lot of games to go. The main thing, as I’ve said all along, is keeping everybody fit. You saw last night that we lose our skipper just before the game, which was a nightmare. If we get everybody fit and get everybody on the pitch, we give ourselves a better chance.
“At the moment we have two or three injuries that are certainly costing us. Danny has a sickness bug. We’re hoping he’ll be okay for Sunday against Partick Thistle but we missed him last night. I thought big Jordan did really well in the game and was very hard done by at the end.”