When Hearts eventually click into gear, they are likely to take some stopping.
Admittedly up against a meek Dundee United side yesterday, the Tynecastle team left Tannadice with three points which rarely looked in doubt from the moment Juanma Delgado’s 15th-minute penalty hit the net.
Hearts, as had been the case in their previous two away wins in the league this season, were nowhere near their best – they didn’t have to be – but this triumph on Tayside, which ended a five-game run without a Premiership victory, meant they ended the first quarter of the campaign in third place, just six points behind leaders Celtic.
Ominously for their Premiership rivals, head coach Robbie Neilson was scathing in his analysis of his team’s performance despite the relative comfort of a victory which only ever looked in any jeopardy in the closing 15 minutes or so. “We’ve still got a lot to work on – we can play a lot better than that,” he said, underlining the expectation levels at the recently-promoted club. “We shouldn’t be hanging on like that against a team at the bottom of the league. It was good to get three points but I was disappointed with our performance. I thought we were slack in our possession. It’s always difficult when you’re playing a team at the bottom of the league with a new manager [Mixu Paatelainen]. They had nothing to lose after we scored so they were able to go a bit gung-ho. But we need to be coming to places like Dundee United and winning more convincingly.”
Despite Neilson’s appraisal, this was a game Hearts always looked likely to win. They started strongly, controlled most of the first half without ever excelling, and then displayed their recently-discovered defensive resolve to see the game out after the break as United gradually emerged from their slumber to show some fight in a match which was more notable for grit than guile. A Hearts defence which had come under fire for shipping ten goals in four games has now conceded just one in its last three. Yesterday’s shut-out was particularly creditable given that it came without injured captain Alim Ozturk and first-choice right-back Callum Paterson, who was suspended. Jordan McGhee was a sure-footed replacement at right-back before switching to left-back for the closing stages of the match after the impressive Juwon Oshaniwa was forced off injured. Stand-in skipper Blazej Augustyn and Igor Rossi were rocks at the heart of defence.
“The defenders did well,” said Neilson. “United didn’t cause us a lot of problems. They didn’t create any clear chances and we covered each other well. United put a lot of balls into the box but they don’t have a lot of height to go and contest it so we felt we could sit deep and let them do that and then try and hit them on the counter-attack. We had a few opportunities to get away but didn’t always pick the right option. Our retention of the ball was poor, which was the disappointing part of it.”
Hearts looked the stronger side from the outset. After a couple of half-chances, they opened the scoring in the 15th minute when Juanma tucked away his penalty after Sam Nicholson was tripped by Blair Spittal while bursting into the box off the left flank.
The visitors threatened again in the 29th minute when Danny Swanson, back at the home of his former club, had a powerful angled shot blocked by Luis Zwick after the excellent Osman Sow had dispossessed Mark Durnan wide on the right and cut into the penalty area. Swanson went even closer two minutes later when his sweetly-struck free-kick from 25 yards out was brilliantly tipped over by the German goalkeeper.
United looked toothless for much of the match, but they did go close two minutes before the break when John Rankin had an effort deflected behind after Neil Alexander failed to catch a John Souttar cross.
The visitors had a decent chance to increase their lead in 53 minutes when Sow powered his way up the right flank and cut the ball back for Juanma, but the Spaniard’s shot from 12 yards out was blocked by former Jambo Ryan McGowan, who had his name sung by an away support appreciative of his Scottish Cup-winning efforts in a maroon jersey.
Hearts suffered a double blow in the 71st minute when they lost both Miguel Pallardo and Juwon Oshaniwa to injury. Academy graduate Liam Smith came on for his league debut at right-back, with fellow 19-year-old McGhee shuffling across to left-back. With no more substitutes available, the Edinburgh side had to endure a backs-to-the-wall finale as several players, including Nicholson, McGhee and Juanma, picked up niggling injuries that might otherwise have forced them off. Their plight was eased in stoppage time, though, when Spittal was sent off for picking up two bookings in quick succession after fouling substitute Morgaro Gomis and then Nicholson.
It meant the hosts ended the match with five yellow cards and a red, but Neilson had no problem with their fired-up approach. “They’re entitled to be physical,” he said. “They’re sitting bottom of the league, they’ve got a new manager and they’re 1-0 down. The players want to impress, so they’re going to go and tackle and try and win the ball. There were no reckless tackles or anything – it was just a hard game and the referee handled it well.
“Some of my players have come in from abroad and aren’t used to the physical side of it but a game like that is good for them as it lets them see what Scottish football is all about.”
Neilson was encouraged to see one of his more established foreign players in such impressive form. Sow was a constant menace to the home defence and was at the heart of most of team’s best attacking play. “Osman’s a top player – he’s been fantastic for us,” said Neilson. “I just hope we can hold on to him because he’s got lightning pace and physicality. We just want to get him scoring more goals, but his display today showed what he’s all about.”