NINETEEN points is a mountain of Everest proportions for Hearts to recover.
That is the deficit now facing the Edinburgh club following defeat to Partick Thistle, their sixth loss in seven games. Despite the best efforts of manager Gary Locke and his backroom team, relegation now seems inevitable.
Locke looked ashen-faced addressing the media after yesterday’s match. His team paid the price for a sub-standard first half in which Lyle Taylor and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair plundered the goals which granted Thistle their first win at Tynecastle in 18 years. The second half brought an improvement following a dressing-room rant from the manager, but it was simply too little, too late.
The result leaves Hearts 19 points behind Ross County, the league’s second bottom team, having won only once in the league since August. Their punishment for entering administration last June has had a severe impact and will continue to do so. The hosts were jeered from the field at half-time yesterday and a few fans have aimed criticism in Locke’s direction.
Referee Iain Brines did not help Hearts’ cause with several poor decisions and some illegal challenges going unpunished. However, he could not be blamed for this latest loss. The simple fact is Hearts have been left with a squad that is ill-equipped for the Scottish Premiership and cannot recruit new players whilst in administration. Partick’s ball retention was significantly better in the first half and they clinically dispatched their two chances. Given they arrived in Gorgie as the league’s second bottom club, the chasm between the two in that first 45 minutes was alarming. Hearts conceded possession cheaply with too many high balls forward, despite Locke demanding more passes on the ground from his technical area.
Kallum Higginbotham won Gabriel Piccolo’s high ball and nodded it into the path of Taylor, Thistle’s recent loan signing from Sheffield United, for the first goal. Taylor held off Dylan McGowan’s challenge and his shot hit Jamie MacDonald’s palm before nestling in the net for his first goal since arriving at Firhill.
The second, five minutes before the interval, was more calamitous. A straightforward corner found Taylor-Sinclair rising unchallenged to head the ball low past MacDonald from around 12 yards. By half-time, this game was virtually over.
“In the first half we weren’t at the races, which disappointed me,” admitted Locke. “Our second-half performance needs to be produced for 90 minutes. Obviously, the two goals we lost were a disaster.
“Our league position is extremely difficult now. That was a big game. At the first goal, we lost the first header which is poor. When you look at the size of Higginbotham, we should be able to win the ball in the air there. The second one is a free header as well. That really rankles with me because we work hard to make sure we are solid defensively, especially at set-plays. Then we’ve lost a free header.”
Hearts rallied after half-time and looked more dangerous after the introduction of wingers Billy King and Sam Nicholson and striker Dale Carrick. However, by then Thistle were defending their lead with their lives.
Asked what the immediate future holds for his team, Locke responded: “We just need to keep going. There’s nothing else we can do. We were without Danny Wilson and Jamie Hamill, which makes it a massive ask for us. The only saving grace is the two of them should be back for next week so at least I can make a couple of changes.
“That’s the galling thing as well. When you have boys not doing their jobs properly, then in an ideal world you take them out and put people in. At least I know I can make a couple of changes next week.”
The points deficit, reduced to eight in the early weeks of the campaign, is increasing with each defeat as others in the Premiership’s bottom half continue to garner points. “That’s the mountain just got bigger. We need to keep plugging along and working hard but we can’t just turn up for 45 minutes,” continued Locke.
“Experience has been a problem for us all season. We’ve got to do better, it doesn’t matter if it’s a young team. I’m not going to use that as an excuse. We didn’t do well enough in the first half, that’s the reason we lost yesterday. Mentally, losing the derby has probably had an effect but they’re young lads and they should certainly be doing better than that.”
Partick manager Alan Archibald was entitled to be thoroughly satisfied. His team played well enough without needing to reach full capacity in front of an encouraging away support of around 1500. As if to underline Hearts’ predicament, this was only Thistle’s second win in 17 games.
“It was vital to win because we hadn’t won is such a long time,” said Archibald. “Ross County won on Saturday and have put a wee run together so it was important we got three points. We ground out a result, didn’t play our best stuff but showed a different side to our game. We battled our corner and defended well.
“I’d be very disappointed if we give up this 20-point advantage we have on Hearts. There are two or three teams round about us and we could maybe drag them back. That’s what we’re looking at. Lyle Taylor coming in has given us a different dimension up front and he got his first goal from playing on the shoulder.”
The only blight from Partick’s perspective was the late red card for midfielder Stuart Bannigan. He executed two late tackles inside three minutes and was booked for both. “I thought the first yellow was harsh,” said Archibald. “Tynecastle being Tynecastle, the whole place erupted after the first tackle [on Nicholson]. I thought the second tackle [on Kevin McHattie] was a booking.”