It’s been a while since two Hearts strikers complemented each other so well. For just over an hour at Rugby Park on Saturday, Kyle Lafferty and Esmael Goncalves dovetailed beautifully as a partnership appeared to be born in the Ayrshire sunshine.
“You’ve got to get a shape for your best players,” said the club’s interim head coach, Jon Daly. “We’ve got Isma Goncalves, who scores in most games, and we’ve got Kyle Lafferty. That’s two very good strikers. We need to get them on the park together, so it was 4-4-2. One of the strikers dropped in to help our midfielders out.
“When you’ve got two strikers like Kyle and Isma, plus Cole Stockton who came on and showed what he’s all about, you’ve got a good choice of strikers. We want strikers on the park so, at the minute, I think that’s probably the best shape for the team.”
Goncalves scored the only goal of the game in Hearts’ 1-0 win over Kilmarnock after just five minutes. He was then sent off on 68 minutes, ruling him out of this weekend’s trip to Ibrox. Provocation when the Kilmarnock defender Kirk Broadfoot pulled his hair left the Portuguese furious, but his reaction in throwing an arm out at his opponent was needless.
Referee Stephen Finnie issued what must be his first ever dismissal for ponytail-tugging and Broadfoot walked along with Goncalves, reducing both teams to ten men. One Kilmarnock fan summed up the frustration within the home support by that stage with a shout in Broadfoot’s direction: “At least we don’t need to watch him, now.”
Hearts were both creative and resilient against a poor Kilmarnock side and left with only their second league win at Rugby Park in six and a half years. Those who noticed the spark whenever Goncalves and Lafferty combined could only lament the fact that the former will not play against Rangers barring an appeal – and Hearts officials are considering such a move.
“He’s adamant Kirk Broadfoot pulled his hair,” explained Daly, the under-20 coach placed in charge of the club until they appoint a new head coach. “If he has reacted, he probably shouldn’t have done. I’ll look at the video and see myself. If someone pulls your hair, it’s not nice on the pitch. It’s not something you expect another footballer to do to you. I’ve not really seen that before but he has got a nice ponytail,” laughed the Irishman.
“Isma worked extremely hard for us on Saturday. A lot of people have probably questioned Isma’s work rate and application off the ball. I thought he did really well for us and took his goal really well. He got down the side and shifted the ball back inside to put it away. That’s what Isma does, he’s a goalscorer. He’s someone we want in our team alongside big Laff.”
This was Daly finally getting to impose himself on the Hearts first team and the signs were encouraging. After Ian Cathro’s 3-4-3 experiment, then a necessary conservative approach at Celtic Park on the Premiership’s opening day, the shackles were off somewhat. Garnering points from Kilmarnock was vital after the 4-1 loss to Celtic – particularly with away matches at Rangers and Motherwell, then a Murrayfield meeting with Aberdeen on the horizon. That was why almost 1800 Hearts fans travelled to Ayrshire.
Lafferty led the line whilst Goncalves dropped into little pockets to link up with midfielders. That movement brought him the opening goal. Michael Smith’s slide-rule pass was controlled as Goncalves ghosted away from Broadfoot to dispatch a precise low finish beyond the Kilmarnock goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald.
But for MacDonald, the same player would have scored again on 20 minutes. A flick into Lafferty’s path and a dart on to the Northern Ireland forward’s first-time return pass sent Goncalves through on goal. MacDonald was alert enough to sprint out of his penalty box and tackle his opponent as he tried to clip the ball past him. A second wouldn’t have flattered Hearts at that point.
The visitors deserved their interval lead but had to withstand a fair amount of pressure after the break. Lafferty wasted the chance to kill the game, miskicking from close range when all he had to do was side-foot Don Cowie’s low cross into the Kilmarnock net.
Kilmarnock launched too many long balls and lacked the genuine panache to create scoring chances. Had they supplied the lively Dom Thomas or substitute Jordan Jones with the ball out wide more often, it might have been different.
When they did open Hearts up, Jack Hamilton sprung into action. The goalkeeper thwarted midfielder Rory McKenzie with a stunning double save on the hour mark to preserve his clean sheet and underline his team’s resilience. It was a feature of the afternoon which pleased Daly no end.
“We had probably the best chances in the game,” he stated. “Jamie MacDonald nicks one off Isma in the first half and then Laff has good chance that he miskicks. You probably expect him to do better. Don Cowie also went through and hit one over the bar.
“Jack didn’t have a lot to do during the game. His handling and distribution were really good. The one time we really needed him was when they cut us open and he made a fantastic double save. That will do him the world of good and hopefully give his confidence a big boost.
“We hadn’t won at Rugby Park since April 2013 so it shows you how difficult it is to get three points there. Doing it in the manner we did shows a lot people that the players have got the characteristics which they’ve been getting questioned over – desire, work rate, effort. This shows everyone they have that in their lockers.”