THE sub-standard defending Gary Locke desperately wanted to cut out resurfaced again last night at Tynecastle against Dundee United.
Goals by Brian Graham and Nadir Ciftci secured victory for the Tayside club and, although Danny Wilson reduced the deficit to 2-1, Hearts ended the game knowing they were again architects of their own downfall.
Graham was unmarked just yards from goal to slot the opener in the first half and Wilson was guilty of giving possession away in the lead-up to Ciftci’s strike. Hearts’ rally following Wilson’s headed goal was simply too little too late, and leaves the Edinburgh club edging every nearer to relegation.
Depending on St Mirren’s results, Hearts’ slide into the SPFL Championship could be confirmed by the time they next take the field – against Hibs in the Edinburgh derby on Sunday week.
For United, this was a sixth win in seven outings as they maintained a very rich vein of form. Ciftci was the tormentor in chief, although he had plenty aid from Graham, Stuart Armstrong and Ryan Dow. Hearts’ brightest spark was undoubtedly Sam Nicholson, who delivered another excellent display wide on the left.
Tynecastle was hosting its first competitive Friday night fixture for 50 years against a backdrop of wind and rain. The slick surface suited a quick passing game and that is what United settled into early on. Hearts, with three men up front in a 4-3-3 formation, were more direct.
Kevin McHattie stung the palms of the visiting goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak from 25 yards on 14 minutes. At the opposite end, Mark Wilson’s low cross fell kindly for Graham before the striker handled six yards from goal. The game was being played at a frantic pace and, after 23 minutes, Dale Carrick turned and dispatched a driven, low shot from 18 yards which was spilled by Cierzniak on the sodden surface.
The Hearts manager Gary Locke started this match with Callum Paterson at right-back and reinstated David Smith to the right wing. Those two combined well early on to afford their team plenty pace going forward, with Nicholson’s running also causing problems on the opposite side.
United’s primary weapon during the first half hour appeared to be the skilful and imposing Ciftci, who was sporting bright orange gloves to match the shorts of his club’s predominantly white change kit.
However, Ciftci was not involved when the first goal was scored. Dow beat Paterson and fed left-back Andy Robertson for a straightforward cutback to the unmarked Graham. He converted high into the net from close range to hand United the initiative.
Hearts tried to respond quickly, but Paterson’s header from Smith’s corner landed over the crossbar. Then Ryan Stevenson exchanged passes with Jamie Hamill and homed in on goal, only to blast a right-footed shot into the side-netting. That was to be the clearest chance of the first 45 minutes for those in maroon.
Jamie MacDonald was called into action just minutes after the restart to push away a venomous effort from the rampaging Robertson. He galloped on to Graham’s through ball and rasped a shot which brought an excellent reaction save from the Hearts goalkeeper.
Moments later, Ciftci sprung clear of Danny Wilson and sped off towards MacDonald’s goal at an acute angle. However, he stroked his shot wide of the far post when a cutback to Graham would almost certainly have resulted in a second goal. Hearts’ first real foray into opposition territory since the break almost resulted in a calamitous moment inside Cierzniak’s six-yard box. Hamill’s cross was missed by both the goalkeeper and Stevenson in the air. The ball bounced off Mark Wilson’s leg towards the goal-line, but Cierzniak was in place to pick it up.
The game was ebbing and flowing from one end to the other and MacDonald held Stuart Armstrong’s shot low to his right as United pursued the second goal which would effectively kill the game. They looked the more threatening of the two teams as the attacking movement of Ciftci and Graham continued to create openings in behind the home defence.
Dow glanced Armstrong’s cross past MacDonald’s left post in the 66th minute and, by that point, frustration would have been growing within Jackie McNamara and others in the United technical area. They were eager to make the game safe and secure the points which would take them to within four points of third-placed Motherwell in the league.
That security arrived 20 minutes from the end when Ciftci produced an exquisite goal from outside the box which left MacDonald helpless. After Wilson had conceded possession cheaply, the imposing Turk showed nimble footwork to meander past two opponents before dispatching the ball high into the top corner with his left foot. It was a goal worth of winning any match.
That two-goal cushion was to prove crucial, for Hearts reduced the deficit to 2-1 with 11 minutes remaining. Wilson redeemed himself by glancing Nicholson’s corner beyond Cierzniak, thus ensuring a hectic closing period as the hosts chased an equaliser.
They might have got one had Nicholson not been inadvertently bodychecked in the penalty area by referee Bobby Madden after playing a one-two with Kevin McHattie. Both player and official shared a joke about the incident as Nicholson rose to his feet, but Locke was far from impressed on the touchline.
His frustration was shared by all in maroon as the game ended with United taking all three points back up the M90