Following an arduous few weeks in which they had lost consecutive games against Aberdeen, Celtic and St Johnstone without scoring a goal, Hearts have earned themselves a much-needed period of respite from the flak which had been flying their way from all directions.
Their controlled and deserved triumph over a beleaguered Dundee side served to temporarily ease the pressure which has been in danger of engulfing everyone at Tynecastle. Hearts’ objective now is to ensure Saturday does not prove to be merely another false dawn in the reign of Ian Cathro. Since taking over as head coach from Robbie Neilson four months ago, promising four-goal victories at home to Kilmarnock and Hamilton have been followed by insipid defeats at the hands of Aberdeen. On the one occasion his team managed back-to-back wins – against Rangers and Motherwell at the start of February – they then went on a five-game run without a victory. That soon developed into a wretched run of one win in nine, which manifested itself on Saturday with the rare sight of a couple of thousand empty seats at Tynecastle, the official attendance of 16,304 clearly incorporating absent season-ticket holders.
With disillusionment rife among sections of the fanbase, Cathro knows the importance of generating momentum and serving up some genuine reason for optimism in the remaining six games of the campaign. Friday night’s trip to Kilmarnock is now of paramount importance for the head coach. “I’m not even calling the Dundee game the first step,” he said. “But for a lot of reasons, it was just important that we got that win over the line. Now we need to immediately move forward and look at the game on Friday night. We need to move on and make sure this isn’t another false start. It’s time to go.”
Hearts controlled large portions of Saturday’s game and made an early breakthrough through the lively Esmael Goncalves, but a well-organised Dundee defence stood firm and kept their hosts within striking defence right to the end. Although Hearts were fairly comfortable throughout, their inability to properly assert themselves by adding to their lead meant anxiety from the home support became audible in the last half hour amid fear of a late suckerpunch. Following a period when their collective character had been intensely questioned, the spirit and bottle shown by the players to see out victory gave the head coach just as much encouragement as the verve they had displayed in the aforementioned league wins over Kilmarnock, Rangers, Motherwell and Hamilton.
“It’s the first 1-0, 2-1 win we’ve had,” said the head coach. “We’ve not had anything like that. Previously when we’ve got ahead, you’ve seen the team start to fly and be a little bit more clinical in how we finish. But this was probably the first time we’ve dug out a result, so for that reason, there’s extra importance on it. It means we know we can win 1-0 as well as win 4-0. We’d love to win 4-0, but 1-0 is fine.
“We controlled long periods of the game but when the score sits at 1-0, you’ve always got the chance of the game ending the way it did. It was important we showed the right attitude, did the right things, were in the right positions and stayed together collectively to get over the line. The stress and pressure on the team can be difficult but these are the things we want because we all want to be at a club like this.
“Of course, we accept those things, but we can’t pretend that pressure and stress doesn’t exist, because it does. To want to get through the game still trying to play and use the ball and attack when the pressure is on takes an extra bit of bravery, and the fact we tried to do that will be something that’ll serve us well in the future.
“For now, the main thing is that we got over the line to get three points.”
Cathro made three changes to the side that started in the back-to-back defeats against Celtic and St Johnstone. Bjorn Johnsen, Tasos Avlonitis and Lennard Sowah all dropped out, paving the way for Arnaud Djoum to return from injury, Liam Smith to come in at right-back for his first start since the defeat at Celtic Park in late January, and Prince Buaben to make his first start since the Scottish Cup win over Raith Rovers two-and-a-half months ago.
The Ghanaian, ordinarily a midfielder, was deployed at centre-back, which proved a shrewd move by Cathro as he strolled through the match, bringing some much-needed composure to a previously leaky defence. Once Goncalves opened the scoring with a low, angled shot after being set up by the excellent Don Cowie in the 13th minute, Hearts rarely looked like being pegged back.
The visitors had only two moments of genuine threat in the match. The first came from an inswinging free-kick by Tom Hateley just before the break which eluded everyone and forced Jack Hamilton into a brilliant reaction save as he sprang to his left to tip the ball onto the post. The home side then had a major let-off in the 63rd minute when Andraz Struna’s slack pass inside was seized on by Craig Wighton, who outmuscled Krystian Nowak to get himself clean through on goal, but the Dundee teenager screwed his shot horribly wide with only Hamilton to beat.
Hearts didn’t exactly cut the Dundee defence open at will either, with their only clear chance of note after the goal being a header from Djoum which was superbly clawed out by Scott Bain in the 39th minute. Despite their inability to trouble the visiting goalkeeper more regularly, there was no doubting that the hosts merited the points, even if their supporters – hurting in the wake of a run of six defeats in seven – were in an unnervingly tetchy state throughout the closing stages. In the end, they emerged with their Europa League hopes still flickering as they stayed within five points of fourth-place St Johnstone.
“It was a bit nervier than it should have been but I think that comes from the run we’ve been on and the feeling around the place,” said Cathro. “For all that we controlled the game for long periods, I’d like us to create more chances. Any situation when the game is just 1-0 towards the end in this league, you’re going to be defending. For us, it became about making sure we were able to get over the line. That was the only thing that was important towards the end, and we did that. Tactically we were fine, we were in the right positions, the fight was there – which is something people talk about and question. For a lot of players playing their third game in a week, it was a massive effort. This was the second time this week where our opponents have had an extra day’s rest than us, and when you add that up, it’s difficult. A lot of credit goes to the players for the extra strength that they showed to get through that.”