FOR a while, it seemed Hearts would contain Dundee United’s free-scoring attacking maestros with an act of sheer defiance at Tannadice. Then the class took over. In a totally one-sided second half, Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong and the rest showed why they are rated Scotland’s most prodigious youngsters.
Saturday’s match ended with a convincing 4-1 scoreline for a United team which has now scored 17 times in their last four matches. They had been restricted and stifled in the first half after Brian Graham’s scrappy opening goal was cancelled out by Jamie Hamill’s penalty. One apiece at the interval, this looked anyone’s game. Then United shunted into overdrive.
Graham headed in the second four minutes after the restart and from then the hosts took control. After a deluge of attacks and shots at the Hearts goal, Gary Mackay-Steven eventually drove the decisive third goal high beyond Jamie MacDonald with five minutes remaining. John Rankin, aided by a deflection, added a fourth in the dying seconds.
Gary Locke, the Hearts manager, felt that was slightly more than United deserved. He argued that a contentious incident at Graham’s second goal changed the complexion of the match. As the striker rose to power Mark Wilson’s corner into the net, Hearts’ Callum Paterson was left sprawling on the turf. Locke and his assistant Billy Brown were incandescent with rage.
“I thought we applied ourselves really well in the first half. There was nothing in the game,” said Locke. “Obviously I need to watch what I’m saying, but a big decision goes against us for their second goal. Callum felt it was a foul. Certainly, from where I was, it looked like a foul. The boy [Graham] gets a free header. Callum is picking him up and Graham’s got a hold of him and got in for a free header. It’s a wee bit disappointing because, at that stage of the game, the second goal was going to be crucial.
“To make matters worse, we go up the other end and Jamie Walker gets brought down again in the box and gets booked for diving when it’s clearly a foul.”
Walker skipped past Wilson, whom he tormented all afternoon, in the 72nd minute and was impeded, although the incident seemed to be just outside the penalty area.
Rather than award Hearts a free kick, referee Craig Thomson strode across to issue Walker a caution for simulation.
“Walker isn’t the type of lad to dive,” continued Locke. “I had a perfect view of it and it certainly wasn’t a dive. To make matters worse he gets booked for it as well when it’s a clear foul. It’s a decision that’s gone against us. Two decisions went against which I thought turned the game in their favour. You’re always looking for a bit of protection for players who are as good as Jamie Walker. I felt he was harshly dealt with.”
Hearts stood toe-to-toe with United in the first half and, even though they were outplayed after the break, were still in the game until Mackay-Steven scored the third.
However, Locke declared himself satisfied with the response to the 7-0 Scottish Cup beating by Celtic. “Every Hearts player to a man responded after last week,” he insisted. “We were well organised, we battled well and we always looked dangerous when we were going forward.
“We were up against a very good side. Going forward, Dundee United are in sparkling form. In the first half I thought we contained them well. Late in the game I tried to change it to get the equaliser and we left ourselves a wee bit exposed on the counter-attack. They have players who punished us.
“I was delighted with our mentality because Tannadice is a difficult place to go, especially with the form Dundee United are in. They’re playing very well at the minute. I know 4-1 looks like we’ve had another hammering, but that certainly wasn’t the case. We were trying to get the equaliser at 2-1 and then Gary Mackay-Steven has hit an unbelievable effort.
“I thought the last goal was a bit harsh on us because we applied ourselves really well in the game.
“We had to change it a wee bit to try and get the equaliser. Doing that, we’ve had to put a couple of younger boys on the pitch. It’s not easy, but that’s not an excuse. We just need to get on with it. It was a bad result. Anybody who hasn’t been at the game will see 4-1 and think it was an easy victory for Dundee United. I didn’t think that was the case.”
United’s manager Jackie McNamara claimed his players hadn’t even reached top gear on Saturday, a frightening statement for the rest of the Scottish Premiership to contemplate. “We said at half-time to keep our shape and discipline and we would get chances,” he explained. “That’s how it turned out and we’re delighted with the result in the end. It was more like a cup tie with tackles flying in which made it hard to get our momentum going.
“However, once we did we showed what we are capable of and got the goals we deserved. I’m pleased for Brian Graham. He is getting his rewards. He’s had to be patient, but is a confident player by nature, which always helps. He took his header well and is always looking to get on the end of things.”