Coming home for Christmas proved a chilling experience for Ian Cathro in his native Dundee. Hearts surrendered a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 at Dens Park in his third match in charge, and left Tayside ruing a plethora of scoring chances.
Imperious in the first half, they didn’t properly exploit the firm grip they had on proceedings and allowed Dundee back into a match they should have been excluded from. Statistics showed the visitors controlled 70 per cent of possession in the opening 45 minutes, during which the Dundee goalkeeper Scott Bain saved his team on four separate occasions.
Jamie Walker’s third-minute penalty had Hearts 1-0 ahead, which became 2-0 when Callum Paterson scored three minutes after the break. However, Cathro’s festive homecoming was destroyed when Darren O’Dea and then Paul McGowan dragged a re-energised Dundee back into the game.
At 2-2, Marcus Haber rose in stoppage-time to head Tom Hateley’s free-kick into the net and secure a vital victory for the hosts. Storm Barbara was swirling its way around Scotland but even that was nowhere near as frantic - or, from Hearts’ perspective, damaging - as this fixture.
“We’ve got Ian Cathro,” chanted the visiting support whilst their team were ahead. However, by full-time, they were leaving deflated. Defensively, Hearts were exposed and made to suffer for a lack of understanding in the second half. They will rightly reflect on a first 45 minutes in which they should have been out of sight.
Cathro handed Krystian Nowak a Hearts debut four months since the Pole arrived at Tynecastle. Primarily a centre-back, he slotted into a defensive midfield role in front a back four containing Paterson, John Souttar, Igor Rossi and Liam Smith.
On the substitutes’ bench, Alim Ozturk looked on doubtless harbouring a fair deal of frustration. When three centre-backs are selected in the starting line-up and you aren’t one of them, the future looks bleaker than the stormy Christmas weather forecast.
Despite the incessant rain, the Dens Park pitch was in terrific condition. Wind was therefore always likely to be the major issue in a confrontation with plenty at stake. Dundee needed points to move away from the Premiership’s relegation area, whilst fourth-placed Hearts were aiming to close in on Aberdeen, Rangers and Celtic above them.
The visitors made an explosive start and moved ahead via the penalty spot inside three minutes. Walker sprinted across the front of Kevin Gomis as Bjorn Johnsen fed in a low pass. The winger’s touch was a fraction ahead of Gomis’ tackle, which took Walker down. Referee Kevin Clancy immediately awarded the penalty, which Walker slotted low to Bain’s left.
After a tidy touch and volley wide of goal by Nowak, Walker sprinted on to Don Cowie’s clipped through pass for a dangerous shot which Bain expertly pushed on to the post. The travelling fans were delighted with their team’s energetic opening. So much so that they began chanting Conor Sammon’s name as the striker warmed up with his fellow substitutes. He politely waved despite taking abuse from his own support in the previous fixture against Partick Thistle.
Cathro’s name also emanated from the away end as his team continued to dominate possession with some neat passing play. They attacked with pace and purpose whenever possible, although Dundee did offer an occasional threat. With 25 minutes gone, striker Craig Wighton dispossessed Nowak on the left but his clever cutback was dispatched wastefully into the stand by James Vincent.
Hearts came tantalisingly close again on 34 minutes. Cowie’s corners were troubling the Dundee defence and they failed to track Paterson’s run across the six-yard line. The full-back met Cowie’s delivery flush on the forehead, but Bain was alive for a vital reaction save. Seconds later, Johnsen scampered through on goal only for Bain to hold his shot.
John Souttar stepped forward to sting the goalkeeper’s palms as the interval approached with Hearts still pursuing a second. Had it not been for Bain, they would have scored three or four - a justifiable result given their 70 per cent possession in the first 45 minutes. The Dundee manager Paul Hartley had to contend with his side being jeered off at half-time and he replaced Gomis with Julen Etxabeguren during the break.
Within three minutes of the restart, Dundee conceded that second goal. Cowie arced a free-kick into the penalty area from the right and Paterson muscled his way into position for a downward header into the corner. Bain tried in vain to keep the ball out. At 2-0, Hearts were entitled to think they were comfortably in the driving seat.
That notion didn’t last long. Dundee forced their way forward and, from Haber’s knockdown, O’Dea lashed a powerful finish low into Jack Hamilton’s net. That revitalised the despondent and frustrated home support, encouraging belief that their side could still prise something from this match. It was also the 6000th league goal Hearts had conceded in their entire history.
Play stopped for some eight minutes in total approaching the hour after a horrible-looking injury to Cowie. He chased Walker’s lofted forward ball into the box and was challenged by a combination of Kostadin Gadzhalov and Bain. Cowie lay crumpled in a heap unable to move and was eventually stretchered off following the lengthy delay, to be replaced by Robbie Muirhead.
Dundee then pounced again to compound the Edinburgh club’s misery. Wighton dispossessed Smith and Vincent took the ball on a run towards the Hearts penalty box. Once there, he slipped a pass left to McGowan for a composed finish into the net from around 12 yards. Hearts had ceded control of the game and now faced the task of trying to win it all over again - whilst also needing to avoid defeat.
Nine minutes of added time were indicated by the fourth official before Dundee scored the game’s decisive goal. After Liam Smith’s foul, Tom Hateley delivered a free-kick on to Haber’s head for a planted finish beyond Hamilton. Dens Park erupted with the confirmation that Hearts had been undone.