Just where would Hearts be without Callum Paterson? That is the pertinent question following a 3-3 draw at Hamilton. For the second successive game, Paterson’s late equaliser rescued a draw for the Edinburgh club.
He now has seven goals in 17 games for Hearts this season and is the top goalscorer at Tynecastle despite being a right-back. That tells its own story. What it doesn’t reveal is some worrying statistics in defence, where ten goals have been shipped in the last four matches.
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson tried a new three-man defensive formation but it didn’t steady his back line. The wait for a win at Hamilton will now stretch into a sixth year, for Hearts’ last victory there was in February 2011. More pressing is their tally of just three points from the last 12 available. They have drawn with Inverness, St Johnstone and Hamilton and lost to Kilmarnock.
Credit where it is due, though. His team isn’t short on character. Hamilton were 3-1 up and looking comfortable before the visitors lifted their game and scored twice. Jamie Walker had opened the scoring with a sublime early strike, but Ali Crawford’s equalising free-kick brought parity by half-time.
Crawford’s instinctive flick allowed Rakish Bingham to score his first Hamilton goal just seconds after the break, and he put the hosts 3-1 up. Hearts’ fightback was commendable and it is that courage which Neilson must harness over the coming weeks to help his team out of their current rut.
The biting cold didn’t overly affect the crowd at the SuperSeal Stadium. Some certainly chose to remain home and warm, however Hearts arrived with burning-hot ambitions to garner three points and end that long sequence without victory in Hamilton.
This fixture was rescheduled from Saturday at the prior request of both clubs, who feared the closure of the M74 would dissuade people from attending. They couldn’t have foreseen the dip in temperatures when the decision was made to switch to a Monday evening. Those who did brave the cold were treated to six goals and plenty drama in a storming encounter.
Alim Ozturk returned in central defence for Hearts with Igor Rossi serving a one-match suspension for accumulating six cautions. However, there was an unusual look to the visitors’ back line. They employed a 3-5-2 formation with Paterson, Ozturk and John Souttar in defence and Liam Smith right wing-back.
The most startling sight was that of Walker at left wing-back but he showed incisive attacking instincts to get forward from there and open the scoring. Just seven minutes in, Bjorn Johnsen scarpered down the left to deliver a looping cross which Hamilton’s Dougie Imrie headed clear. Walker arrived as the ball landed on the edge of the penalty area and dispatched a sweet first-time shot with his right foot high beyond Accies goalkeeper Gary Woods.
Hearts made a fine job of putting their new defensive system to the test on 21 minutes. Souttar and Walker both went for a bouncing ball, Souttar got there first and headed back towards goalkeeper Jack Hamilton. Gramoz Kurtaj challenged the young Scot as he emerged from his goal and won the ball. Kurtaj’s cross was headed goalwards by Bingham, but Souttar had recovered and cleared off his own goal line.
Moments later, Hamilton did equalise. The ever-dangerous Crawford stepped up to a free-kick 25 yards from goal after a foul by Prince Buaben. Crawford’s perfectly-arced effort sped over the wall and down into the bottom corner to the goalkeeper’s right. As ever when he scores against the club which released him as a teen, the diminutive midfielder enjoyed the celebrations.
He would have put his team 2-1 ahead from Kurtaj’s through pass on the half-hour mark had Hamilton not blocked with his legs. Then came an equally important stop at the opposite end as Woods got his fingers to Johnsen’s diving header from Buaben’s cross. One more genuine scoring opportunity arrived before the interval when Accies defender Georgios Sarris’ blind backpass found Johnsen with his back to goal. He turned and tried to release Don Cowie but, by then, Sarris had recovered with a sliding challenge.
A quick start to the second period saw the hosts go 2-1 up within ten seconds of the restart. Crawford was again central to the goal. He impishly flicked a bouncing ball into Bingham’s path and the striker calmly finished low into the net from 14 yards with the Hearts defence looking static
Falling behind sucked confidence out of the Hearts players for a short spell. That said, they fashioned a glaring chance to level the scores on the hour. Cowie’s corner was cleared and found its way back to the former Scotland midfielder towards the right flank. This time, his delivery cleared all in red and white and landed with the unmarked Ozturk at the back post. The Turk took a touch before shooting, however Woods by then was at point-blank range and the ball ricocheted off the goalkeeper and behind.
With a quarter of the game remaining, Hamilton moved 3-1 ahead. Smith was dispossessed near the halfway line and Kurtaj sent a quick pass through for Bingham. An impressive turn of pace took him in behind the visiting defence. Despite the acute angle, the Englishman’s finish was sublime as he fired the ball across goalkeeper Hamilton into the net.
Yet Hearts earned a penalty 17 minutes from time for a clumsy challenge by Seaborne on Cowie. Walker stepped up and stroked the ball into the net via Woods’ left post. The chance of a point was still alive and Neilson introduced Conor Sammon, Arnaud Djoum and Faycal Rherras in the hope of rescuing a draw.
Djoum was making his 50th competitive appearance for the Tynecastle club and has proven himself a reliable goalscorer from midfield in many of those games. A late rally was on the cards. Walker’s angled strike hit the crossbar and Woods held Paterson’s follow-up header. The Scotland full-back was now playing as a centre-forward to aid the cause.
On 86 minutes, he again produced a critical goal at the most timely juncture having scored late on in the 2-2 draw with St Johnstone two weeks ago. Perry Kitchen’s intelligent reverse pass created the opening for Paterson to touch and prod the ball low beyond Woods from near the penalty spot. It was enough to avoid defeat but it didn’t disguise the fact that the Hearts defence needs attention.
The only other moment of note before the final whistle was a reckless tackle by Accies’ star man Crawford on Walker. It earned a yellow card but, in truth, may have merited a red. Neilson was irate at the end and had words with the fourth official to declare his anger.
Hamilton (3-5-1-1): Woods; Sarris, Devlin, Seaborne; Gillespie (Docherty 71), MacKinnon, Donati, Kurtaj, Imrie (Sowah 90); Crawford; Bingham (D’Acol 88). Unused subs: Thomson, Redmond, Longridge, Brophy.
Hearts (3-5-2): Hamilton; Paterson, Ozturk, Souttar; L Smith, Cowie, Kitchen, Buaben (Djoum 79), Walker; Johnsen (Sammon 79), Watt (Rherras 79). Unused subs: Noring, Nowak, Muirhead, Currie.
Referee: Steven McLean.