No money for their efforts and now no points. It’s safe to say this has been a wretched week for the beleaguered Hearts players.
Despite the absence of tangible reward for their work, however, they could at least leave Tynecastle yesterday with plenty credit for the manner in which they applied themselves at the end of a week which has seen them badly let down by their superiors. Then again, praise alone never did pay the bills or split the Old Firm.
A glance at the scoreline might suggest a routine win for the champions against a set of Hearts players whose heart wasn’t in it after the worry of going without wages for over a week. But make no mistake, this was no meek surrender from the Edinburgh side.
Indeed, the spirited performance they produced against Ally McCoist’s clinical but hardly sensational league leaders could quite feasibly have proved enough, on another day, to ensure a 2-0 scoreline in their favour. Manager Paulo Sergio, speaking only to the Hearts website as a result of the club’s media blackout, suggested as much in his after-match quotes. As it was, Hearts were left to rue a whole host of ‘what ifs’ on a day when little went their way. This match was decided on the merest of margins.
What if one of several Hearts players had shown more conviction in trying to stop Steven Whittaker’s surge from half-way to penalty box in the build-up to Steven Naismith’s 20th minute opener? What if the ball had trundled the inside of the post when Ryan Stevenson forced his way between Rangers pair Lee Wallace and Carlos Bocanegra to nudge an effort beyond the outrushing Rangers goalkeeper, Allan McGregor? What if Adrian Mrowiec had buried his second-half sitter? What if that chance had fallen to someone more prolific than the otherwise impressive Pole? What if Marius Zaliukas hadn’t allowed Nikica Jelavic to drift off his man and score a superbly-executed second goal when Hearts were on top?
In the end, it could be argued, correctly, that when all these factors are put together, Rangers were simply more ruthless in front of goal than their profligate hosts and as a result deserved to maintain a perfect away record which has seen them win all six SPL games on the road without losing a goal. Or we can continue this theme of ‘what ifs’ and ask what if the players had been paid on time? What if they’d not been forced to spend the week fretting over financial matters when they should have been fully focused on the biggest match of their season so far? What if the manager hadn’t allowed himself to be drawn into a needless spat with the SFA and Iain Brines when he should have simply accepted the perceived injustice of last month’s League Cup defeat to Ayr and moved on to the next match? What if none of these negative headlines had been allowed to overshadow a week in which talk of challenging the Old Firm was beginning to surface following back-to-back 2-0 wins? What if their fans hadn’t awoken on the morning of the game to back-page headlines about their club taking the huff and withdrawing media co-operation in protest at the SFA’s decision to charge Sergio?
All these factors, it seems safe to say, would have helped play a part in Tynecastle being less raucous than usual for a match in which victory would have sent out a real message of intent to the rest of the SPL. Despite all this, Hearts started well and McCoist had to look on anxiously as his men spent the first six minutes camped in their own half and living a tad dangerously without ever giving up any clear chances. The Ibrox men gradually felt their way into the match and the impressive Lee McCulloch, making his first league start of the season, volleyed just past in seven minutes before Maurice Edu went close twice in quick succession. At the other end, Stevenson, who put in a tireless shift throughout, saw a header knocked off the line by Naismith.
But Rangers were building up a head of steam and, after McCulloch headed a Sasa Papac corner just over, Hearts were undone in 21 minutes. Whittaker’s foraging run, unchallenged, into the danger area, resulted in the ball squirting perfectly into the path of Naismith, and the SPL’s top scorer made no mistake in beating the exposed Marian Kello with a clinical finish from the edge of the box. It was the first league goal Hearts had conceded at Tynecastle since July. The home end fell silent as the delirious visiting fans in the Roseburn Stand belted out their catchy Penny Arcade ditty, among others.
Hearts were still very much holding their own, however, and a powerful 27th-minute Danny Grainger blast from outside the box sparked a bout of pinball in the Rangers box which resulted in Stevenson, constantly sniffing out half chances, seeing his effort charged down. The ball just wouldn’t break for Hearts when it mattered. After Edu shot over from distance, McGregor was relieved to see Stevenson bundle an effort agonisingly wide while under pressure from Bocanegra and former Hearts team-mate Wallace, who was making his first appearance at Tynecastle since leaving for Ibrox in July. Hearts were on top as half-time approached with Rudi Skacel’s stinging strike brilliantly beaten away by McGregor before Stevenson’s frustration continued when he was booked for trying to score with his hand after a cross from the left was just too high for him.
Hearts took full command early in the second half and should have got themselves level. Eggert Jonsson, terrific in the holding role, saw a 50th-minute effort blocked by the ever-defiant Bocanegra before Hearts’ wretched fortune was summed up when a stunning Skacel strike, which would surely have tested McGregor, merely succeeded in pole-axing Stevenson as it blasted him in the midriff.
Skacel then pinged another howitzer at the Rangers goal, but as McGregor parried and the cavalry thundered in on the follow-up, the linesman’s offside flag calmed the frenzy. Hearts were sniffing an equaliser, though, and how it didn’t arrive in the 65th minute remains a mystery. Templeton picked the ball up wide left and skinned Romanian centre-back Dorin Goian, the league’s best defender so far this season, before charging into the box and cutting the ball back to Mrowiec eight yards out. The stocky midfielder, who has never scored for Hearts, had so much time to pick his spot, but to the bewilderment of all he pushed his effort the wrong side of the post. Sadly for Hearts, it was a case of wrong man in the right place and it was at this point it became apparent that it was unlikely to be the hosts’ day.
This notion was confirmed in 73 minutes when Jelavic, with his first touch after coming on for the largely ineffective central striker Kyle Lafferty, peeled away from Zaliukas and majestically cushioned Bocanegra’s long diagonal beyond Kello with the inside of his right foot. It was a sucker punch for Hearts and only the second time this season they had conceded more than once in a league game. The stuffing was well and truly knocked out of them when, just a minute after Rangers’ second, Stevenson was denied twice from close range by a magnificent McGregor double save. Mehdi Taouil, David Obua and Gordon Smith were all introduced to try and mount an unlikely salvage job, with Ian Black noising up the away fans, who still haven’t forgiven him for injuring Jelavic a year ago, by sarcastically applauding them and kissing the Hearts badge as he was taken off in the immediate aftermath of being booked for a foul on Naismith in 82 minutes.
When all was said and done some ten minutes later, Black’s teammates left the field to applause from a home support who recognised the effort put in by their embattled players.
Their momentum, defensive solidity and home invincibility may have taken a dent yesterday, but, in light of the farcical circumstances of the last week and a bit, the spirit and professional pride of the Hearts players remains very much intact.