When Gary Locke and Billy Brown jumped about apoplectic with rage in the Firhill technical area as Partick Thistle were awarded a late penalty last month, little did the Hearts management team know it would be the start of a disconcerting trend.
Nursing a sense of injustice has become a pretty regular occurrence for Hearts over the past month, following an astonishing run in which they have conceded spot-kicks in each of their last four league games.
While the award of that first penalty at Partick, for a Jamie Walker foul on John Baird, was shown to be the right call, there has been no shortage of dubiety about each of the other three.
The second, given for a foul by Kevin McHattie on Aberdeen striker Calvin Zola, was contentious enough for Hearts to appeal the left-back’s red card, albeit unsuccessfully. It is the two most recent awards, however, which have been the hardest to take for the Gorgie side, with Jamie Hamill harshly penalised for handball on both occasions. The first, at Inverness, blatantly struck his face, with his susbequent red card duly rescinded on appeal, while, last Saturday, a header by Celtic’s Anthony Stokes struck the former Kilmarnock player’s arm with the game still poised at 0-0.
“The penalty situation has not been great but they say these things even themselves up,” said manager Locke.
“There’s nothing you can do about it, it’s just one of these things. The one up at Inverness was shown to be never a penalty and Saturday’s was really harsh. The same type of thing happened in the second half when the ball hit Efe Ambrose’s hand and we didn’t get a penalty.
“You’ve just got to go with what the referee sees and hope that, over the season, we’ll get just as many breaks as we’re not getting at the moment.” Three of the four penalties have been scored – Inverness’s Billy McKay was the only one to fail when his effort was saved by Jamie MacDonald – exacerbating an already difficult situation as Hearts bid to overcome their 15-point deficit with a threadbare and youthful squad.
“In some ways, it would be easier to take if they were all stone-wallers and there was something we could do to cut them out, but we just don’t seem to be getting any luck at the moment,” rued Locke.
To put Hearts’ present penalty misfortune into context, seven Scottish Premiership sides have had no penalties awarded against them so far. Hearts conceded only four penalties in the entirety of last season, while, down south, Manchester United went the entire campaign without conceding a penalty, and QPR, who finished rock-bottom of the English Premier League, made it to April without conceding a spot-kick.
There have been 11 penalties awarded in the top flight so far, with Ross County, Motherwell and St Mirren, who have conceded two apiece, the only sides other than Hearts to have been penalised more than once.
While Hearts feel a touch aggrieved by the remarkable run of penalties against them, refreshingly, there is no suggestion of bias or conspiracy theories in the Tynecastle dressing-room. Locke, wouldn’t entertain such talk, nor allow any perceived injustice to be used to excuse adverse results. “We can’t start feeling sorry for ourselves,” he said. “Referees make decisions and you’ve just got to get on with it. If we feel sorry for ourselves we’ll never get out of the mess we’re in.”