This was an unfitting farewell, if ever there was one, to Tynecastle’s 103-year-old main stand.
Of all the 2253 matches the iconic Archibald Leitch structure has witnessed, few can have finished in such uncomfortable fashion for Hearts than its very last one did yesterday. On what was supposed to be a day of reflection and, assuming all went to plan on the park, celebration, the old stadium ended up gripped by rancour. Instead of basking in nostalgia on a glorious sunny afternoon in Gorgie, the primary emotion filling the air by full-time was anger as the 15,000 Hearts supporters turned on their players and management following an underwhelming home defeat which left them six points behind fourth-place St Johnstone with three daunting away games to come in their increasingly forlorn-looking quest to return to the Europa League qualifiers.
The Hearts players, who had incurred the wrath of the crowd at sporadic moments throughout their final home match of a demoralising season, were roundly booed off at the end. Aside from the merry-making of the 1450 Aberdeen fans in the Roseburn Stand as their side all but secured second place with this deserved victory, the ground emptied quickly, leaving only around 1000 people in the home stands by the time the Hearts squad re-emerged from the tunnel to thank their supporters for their backing this season.
It was notable that many of those who saw fit to stay behind and offer some semblance of support for their embattled team felt compelled to boo Ian Cathro when he reappeared on the pitch. The under-fire head coach, who has presided over a five-month period in which Hearts have slipped from level on points with the Dons in early December to 24 points adrift of them at the business end, continued applauding the supporters throughout the booing and appeared to be mouthing, apologetically, along the lines of ‘it will get better.’ This was the most awkward and unedifying way for one of the most iconic stands in Scottish football to take its leave after more than a century of rousing occasions.
“The fans have the right to be unhappy and frustrated, and they are,” said Cathro afterwards, accepting the brickbats coming his way. “They are disappointed and angry. The results that are normal to Hearts haven’t been achieved. The consistency hasn’t been there. That right [to criticise] exists and it’s one of the things that comes at this club.”
Following back-to-back draws with Kilmarnock and Partick, and with a testing run of three away games against Rangers, St Johnstone and Celtic to finish the season, yesterday’s match was widely seen as a last chance to resuscitate their ailing hopes of catching Saints in the battle for fourth place. Having being piped on to the pitch following some pre-match fanfare, Hearts, who had Aaron Hughes and Lennard Sowah back in the starting line-up after their respective injury lay-offs, failed to respond to the much-hyped occasion.
Aberdeen, who threatened through Andrew Considine and Niall McGinn in the opening 20 minutes, made the breakthrough in the 21st minute when Jack Hamilton could only parry a long-range strike from Graeme Shinnie straight into the path of Adam Rooney and the Aberdeen striker made no mistake in forcing home his 20th goal of the season from eight yards out. The homegrown goalkeeper was jeered by a section of the home support the next time he touched the ball as the first hint of acrimony on this historic afternoon began to surface.
Hearts tried to muster a response and Jamie Walker headed wide in the 24th minute from a Don Cowie free-kick. That was as close as the hosts got to scoring in what was an insipid first-half display. Liam Smith came on at the start of the second half to replace fellow right-back Andraz Struna, who had sustained what Cathro described as a muscular problem.
The Dons, who were also forced into a half-time change as Anthony O’Connor replaced the injured Peter Pawlett, almost doubled their lead in 49 minutes when McGinn’s powerful shot was palmed out by Hamilton and Shinnie rasped the rebound just past. In the 51st minute, the hosts went close to an equaliser but Arnaud Djoum was unable to divert an angled shot from Sowah into the net after sliding in at the back post.
Hearts had generally enjoyed the best of the play early in the second half and they levelled on the hour mark when Esmael Goncalves nodded in from close range after being picked out by an excellent Smith cross from the right.
Parity lasted only four minutes, however, as Aberdeen substitute O’Connor looped a header high beyond Hamilton after connecting with Jonny Hayes’ free-kick from the left. Cathro responded by taking off captain Cowie two minutes later in order to introduce a second striker in the shape of Bjorn Johnsen. The decision was loudly jeered by the home support as the veteran midfielder, who appeared to be doing more than most to keep his side in the game, made his way straight up the tunnel. “I think it’s clear that we wanted to change a midfield player for a striker. Everybody knows the reason for that,” said Cathro, implying that the midfielder was sacrificed in order to implement more attacking threat to the team at a time when they needed a goal. “Don is one of our most important players, quite possibly the most important, for a whole number of reasons. I understand it [the fans’ reaction].”
After a fruitless effort to force an equaliser, the mood of the home support wasn’t improved by the sight of Walker, who had been booked just before the break, being sent off in the last minute after being shown a second yellow card by referee Willie Collum for a foul on McGinn.
The last stand did not go as planned.