A MAGNIFICENT strike by Danny Grainger gave Hearts a much-needed victory yesterday and increased the feeling that, barring top and bottom, there is little between any of the teams in the SPL this season.
Hearts - Grainger (14)
John McGlynn’s team had won only twice in the league before this game, but are now just a point behind Motherwell, whose consistency in recent years surely maintains their status as favourites to finish second behind Celtic.
The away team may feel aggrieved that they put so much into the match yet came away with nothing but they were unable to produce anything to equal the quality of the game’s only goal. Indeed, Hearts came as close to grabbing a second as Motherwell did to equalising and, although their strikers again failed to score Hearts’ morale is sure to be lifted significantly by the win and also by the fact that they kept a clean sheet.
Motherwell began the game at a high tempo, and came close to opening the scoring in the first minute when a low Jamie Murphy shot was pushed out for a corner by Jamie MacDonald. After that let-off, however, Hearts gradually took control and looked particularly threatening down the flanks through Andrew Driver and Arvydas Novikovas.
The Motherwell defence dealt competently with a number of crosses from the two wingers but, with almost quarter of an hour played, were unable to prevent Hearts taking the lead through a more direct route. They should arguably have tried to close Grainger down more quickly when he picked up possession on halfway after Andy Webster had regained possession from a Motherwell throw, but could be forgiven for expecting a cross to the back post. Instead, the left-back unleashed a blistering 30-yard drive and Darren Randoph was helpless to prevent it crashing into the far corner of the net.
Hearts continued to play some positive passing football for the rest of the half but found it hard to forge scoring chances, the most straightforward being a low shot by Callum Paterson which Randolph saved comfortably. Webster had a more awkward opportunity when he ghosted behind the defence to run on to a Grainger chip but the defender was partially unsighted by an opponent and reacted late with a heavy first touch. That took the ball past Randolph but also too far and, although Webster was able to regain possession, his ball back infield was snuffed out by the Motherwell defence.
The visitors continued to look dangerous, especially down the left, where one attack was ended by Driver at the expense of a yellow card after he had brought down Nicky Law. Motherwell also had a penalty claim ten minutes from the break when Webster headed clear after climbing above Higdon but the striker had not challenged for the ball and referee Willie Collum waved some faint complaints away.
Reverting from auxiliary defence to his usual role in attack, Driver then beat Shaun Hutchinson for speed on a break up the left after Ryan McGowan passed up the line. Driver reached the byline but his cutback was cut out by Chris Humphrey. In stoppage time, Hutchinson picked up an injury and was replaced for the second half by midfielder Stuart Carswell, Tom Hateley dropping back into defence.
Motherwell began that second period as briskly as they had the first, and Higdon should at least have been on target instead of shooting wide from a Humphrey right-wing cross. Although the visitors continued to press for an equaliser, there was a sense in such a close game that a second goal for Hearts would kill off the contest and Ryan Stevenson was not far off claiming it with a shot on the run which beat Randolph but flew wide of the far post.
After an hour, Marius Zaliukas became the second home player to be cautioned when he stopped Keith Lasley illegally, then John Sutton came on for Novikovas. The winger had still seemed full of running but, with the introduction of the former Motherwell striker, Paterson moved to a position wide on the right, with Driver switching wings.
It was not long before Sutton had a chance to put his team two up. A Grainger corner was half cleared then headed back into the area and, although he was unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box, the Englishman could only head wide. The ball had come at an awkward moment for Sutton as he was getting back to his feet but his inability to get his effort on target was nonetheless indicative of the hapless time he has had this season, his only goals to date having come from the penalty spot.
Hearts: MacDonald, R McGowan, Webster, Zaliukas, Grainger, Driver, Barr (Robinson 70), Taouil (D McGowan 89), Stevenson, Novikovas (Sutton 60), Paterson. Subs not used: Enckelman, McHattie, Carrick, Smith.
Motherwell: Randolph, Kerr, Hutchinson (Carswell 46), Ramsden, Hammell, Humphrey, Hateley, Lasley, Law (Daley 85), Murphy (Ojamaa 73), Higdon. Subs not used: Hollis, McHugh, Francis-Angol, Hetherington.