Hearts seem to have decided they don’t really fancy this relegation lark.
Three minutes from full-time last night, down to ten men, 1-0 behind and needing to avoid defeat to survive, up stepped Jamie Hamill. Cooler than Will.i.am in a chest freezer, he converted a penalty to preserve his club’s Premiership status until the weekend at least.
Three days ago, youngsters Dale Carrick and Billy King scored in a 2-0 win over Hibs which kept Hearts alive in the top flight. Last night against Aberdeen, they fought defiantly once more as the pressure was ramped up. It took an experienced head to handle it. Hamill had to equalise Willo Flood’s opening goal or relegation would be confirmed. He calmly slotted his penalty home in front of the Gorgie Stand with only minutes left.
Hearts captain Danny Wilson had been sent off just before Flood planted a free-kick beyond Jamie MacDonald in the 74th minute. That goal appeared to have consigned Hearts to the Championship until Callum Paterson was impeded by the otherwise impressive Aberdeen right-back Shaleum Logan.
“You think there maybe won’t be a way back, especially when you lose your captain from the heart of the defence. It just shows you the character we have in the dressing room,” explained Hamill.
“The one I missed in the League Cup semi-final was going through my mind when I stepped up to take the penalty. I thought that would’ve been in the back of Jamie Langfield’s mind if he’d seen it so I decided to go that way as well. There was a wee bit of pressure on the penalty, but I’m happy to take all the pressure off people.
“Being relegated didn’t cross my mind. It comes back to being a professional football player. You have to stand up and be counted. We’d be sitting top of the league just now if it was all about team spirit. We need to get as many points so that we can look back at the end of the season and ask where we’d be if we never had the 15-point penalty. The gaffer has worked with his hands tied behind his back and I think he’s done a magnificent job.”
Hearts’ future remains in the balance ahead of crucial meetings in Lithuania on Monday. They could decide whether 80 per cent of the club’s shares can be transferred to prospective owner Ann Budge. “I’m coming out of contract at the end of the season and I don’t know what’s happening with my future. I’ve got to keep playing and put myself in the shop window if things take a turn for the worst.
“Hopefully things are looking more positive for next Monday,” continued Hamill, who was criticised by Hearts fans earlier this season.
“The fans have been brilliant. There have been games when they have been on my back, but I’m happy enough for them to be on my back if it’s taking the sting off the younger boys. I’m 100 per cent behind the fans. Every one of them have been brilliant this season. I’m happy to take a wee bit of grief if the younger boys are escaping it.”
Gary Locke, the Hearts manager, saw his side continue to attack in search of a winning goal even after Hamill’s penalty equaliser. “Credit to them, they’re improving and getting better. They’re better players than they were at the start of the season,” he said. “I thought they applied themselves brilliantly, especially in the second half against a top team. Even when we went down to ten men we never gave up.
“We’ve tried to play like that all season. We try to win the game and we were unfortunate not to. I felt we matched Aberdeen all over the park. It was a worry about the energy levels [after beating Hibs on Sunday] but you can see the players are getting stronger physically. The demands of the first team are difficult but we’re handling it better. Monday is the biggest battle. It’s coming closer now. We’re looking to win at Partick on Saturday, but the biggest battle is Monday.”
The first shot of last night’s encounter was Niall McGinn’s 25-yard drive to MacDonald’s right, which the goalkeeper pushed to safety. Aberdeen dominated the opening stages with Peter Pawlett running at the Hearts defence from his advanced midfield role every time he took possession.
MacDonald was called upon again shortly after the half-hour mark to parry Adam Rooney’s toe poke after Pawlett had dispossessed Paterson in the right-back area. Wilson’s last-gasp tackle then denied Pawlett from Rooney’s headed knockdown. The visitors were coming closer and poured forward at will as the interval approached.
Hearts’ only notable effort at goal in the first half was Ryan Stevenson’s glancing header from David Smith’s free-kick, which bounced off target. Stevenson was shunted from midfield to centre-forward for the second period as the ineffective Paul McCallum was replaced by Scott Robinson.
Hearts restarted at a much higher tempo and began probing at the Aberdeen defence. It took until 67 minutes for them to properly trouble goalkeeper Langfield, however. Paterson meandered forward from right-back past two opponents and lashed the ball at goal from 25 yards. Langfield was equal to the task with a diving save to his left.
Then came the unscheduled departure of visiting midfielder Barry Robson. He sprinted off the pitch and straight up the tunnel for an emergency toilet break, with manager Derek McInnes later confirming his midfielder had an upset stomach. The player reappeared to chants of, “Barry Robson, he sh*** when he wants,” from the travelling fans.
Hearts continued pressing but, just when they looked capable of breaking through, one crazy moment left them chasing the game. Wilson, having earlier been booked for a late tackle on Rooney, pulled the striker down as he turned to chase a long ball. Out came a second yellow card followed by the red. As the centre-back headed down the tunnel, Flood drove the resultant free-kick into the net via a wicked bounce in front of MacDonald.
A rousing response from the home support echoed around Tynecastle within seconds. “We’ll support you evermore,” sang the locals as confirmation of their team’s slide into the Championship loomed with the scoreline at 1-0. Yet Hearts were far from finished.
There were chances for Rooney and Stevenson at both ends before substitute Brad McKay’s well-timed sliding tackle denied Flood in the act of shooting. The late rally from the spirited Hearts players was kickstarted when Paterson was thrust into the forward line.
He won a penalty three minutes from time by galloping on to a hoisted clearance from Logan which bounced inside the penalty area. The defender’s challenge brought Paterson to the floor and referee Kevin Clancy pointed immediately for a penalty. Hamill stepped forward with admirable gumption under intense pressure. He slotted the ball low to Langfield’s right and staved off Hearts’ relegation in the process.
Despite the late setback, Aberdeen moved back up to second place in the Premiership on goal difference, although they have now failed to beat Hearts in three attempts this season.
“I thought there was so much good about the first-half performance. We played in their half,” said Derek McInnes, the Aberdeen manager. “I think Hearts are a team who have good height and make the most of that. In the last five minutes, they were sending the ball forward hoping something would drop for them. You commend them for that. They never gave up, backed by a strong support.
“We need to see that off and that’s the disappointing part for us. It was a game in which our performance alone merited all three points. But we’ve been here before with Hearts and not managed to press home that advantage.
“I’m not sure it was a penalty. I’m not convinced the referee is in a good position to see it. I think Shay should deal with the first clearance better, but I think Paterson throws himself into Shay’s body and leg. There’s enough there that it might be a penalty, but the referee has to be sure to give it.
“Credit to Hearts, but my team were excellent up until the last five minutes.”