AFTER a difficult December and no wins in five games, Hearts were grateful to encounter the charitable Dundee United defence tonight.
They exploited the calamitous Michal Szromnik in goal to take three points for the first time since November 7 and end the year in third place in the Ladbrokes Premiership. They might even have scored more than the three goals mustered.
United had conceded 36 times in 19 league games arriving at Tynecastle and finished the match with ten men after Mark Durnan’s red card late in the first half. Billy McKay’s second-minute penalty opened the scoring after Juwon Oshaniwa fouled Scott Fraser with an unnecessary tackle inside the box. Gavin Reilly equalised before Prince Buaben and an Osman Sow penalty put Hearts 3-1 ahead. Fraser’s free-kick reduced the deficit but Durnan’s dismissal in first-half stoppage-time ended any chance of a comeback.
The visitors, ten points adrift at the foot of the league table, recently completed the signing of Japanese international goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima. On last night’s evidence, he won’t have much difficulty displacing Szromnik and may even find himself playing in Saturday’s derby against Dundee. The Pole was culpable at two of Hearts’ goals and, although he recovered somewhat in the second half, the damage was already done.
At the very start of a crazy first half, there was consternation for United when Szromnik chested a long ball down outside his penalty box but was dispossessed by Sow. Callum Morris intervened with a thump upfield which Chris Erskine collected and sent through to Fraser. Going away from goal, he posed no immediate danger to Hearts, which made Oshaniwa’s sliding challenge all the more needless. The Nigerian lunged in and fouled Fraser, and McKay finished off the resultant penalty with aplomb.
United might have been two ahead on ten minutes when Neil Alexander came for a corner, only for Sam Nicholson to head clear. The goalkeeper was out of his goal but Erskine could only send the loose ball into the Gorgie Road Stand from 18 yards. With that, Hearts moved upfield and Billy King’s cross was headed goalwards by Nicholson but saved by Szromnik. The rebound hit Reilly before being cleared by Morris.
The relentless opening period continued when Hearts forced an equaliser. Szromnik strangely chose to push a cross ball over his bar for a corner rather than catch – a decision which proved fatal. King’s clipped corner was flicked on by Alim Ozturk and then cleverly hooked into the net by Reilly with his back to goal. It was a strike the 22-year-old was craving after regaining a place in Hearts’ starting line-up at the weekend. He almost claimed his second moments later with a header from a cross by Jordan McGhee, who was back in the starting line-up alongside club captain Ozturk.
The hosts did move in front through Buaben on 26 minutes. From Nicholson’s pass inside, the Ghanaian found himself in space for a 22-yard effort which headed straight for Szromnik. The Polish goalkeeper’s weak wrists allowed the ball through in what was an atrocious attempt to block the shot, and it nestled in the corner of the net.
Four minutes later came Hearts’ third via the penalty spot. King was impeded going past Morris and Sow confidently tucked the ball beyond Szromnik from 12 yards. That goal put distance between the teams and Hearts in a commanding position. However, they were hauled back just before half-time. Fraser’s left-footed free-kick appeared to elude everyone as it arced across the penalty area and into the net via Alexander’s right post.
If that was a potential lifeline, United punctured their own life jacket just seconds later. Durnan pulled Reilly down as the striker raced on to a through ball and was red-carded by referee Bobby Madden for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. Morris followed his defensive colleague up the tunnel on a stretcher after falling awkwardly as if to compound the misery for manager Mixu Paatelainen. It can often be the way when you’re bottom of the league.
It was clear during the interval that United faced a daunting task trying to impose themselves on their opponents with a man less. Szromnik, bizarrely, looked improved and made some useful saves to keep Hearts at bay. He beat away a 25-yard attempt from substitute Arnaud Djoum and denied Reilly, who also missed from close range with his left foot. Other efforts from Nicholson and King flew over the Pole’s crossbar.
The home side were awaiting a goal to kill the game off completely and had plenty chances to do so but couldn’t convert. Both Nicholson and King were in fine form on the flanks and had useful targets to aim for through the middle in Sow and the energetic Reilly. In midfield, Buaben was dictating play and spraying passes around with confidence.
From one of King’s crosses, McGhee stabbed a toe at the ball in the hope of producing a fourth goal for his team. Szromnik was in place to collect and the final few minutes saw the Tynecastle side retreating to protect their narrow lead. Danny Swanson and Dario Zanatta were on as substitutes to shore up the midfield area, leaving Reilly up front alone.
The ploy worked as Hearts saw the game out after a slightly nervous ending, but that isn’t likely to bother anyone of a maroon persuasion. This result closed the gap on second-placed Aberdeen to seven points and was a welcome way for Hearts to finish 2015.
Hearts (4-4-2): Alexander; McGhee, Ozturk, Rossi, Oshaniwa; King, Buaben, Gomis (Djoum 46), Nicholson; Sow (Swanson 80), Reilly. Unused subs: Augustyn, Hamilton, Pallardo, Buchanan.
Dundee Utd: (3-4-2-1): Szromnik; Durnan, Morris (Dillon 45), Gunning; McGowan, Demel (J Souttar 79), Rankin, Dixon; Fraser, Erskine; McKay (Spittal 46). Unsued subs: Zwick, Murray, Spark, Bodul
Referee: Bobby Madden