MORE than spirit, it seems to be sheer fire and defiance carrying Hearts from result to result right now. After beating Hibs and drawing at Partick Thistle, they overcame a resurgent Aberdeen at a raucous Tynecastle to reduce their deficit at the bottom of the Premiership to nine points.
Losing centre-back Brad McKay to injury during the game didn’t matter. Having Kevin McHattie sent off didn’t matter. Conceding an equaliser didn’t matter. Relying on a 17-year-old to win the game didn’t matter. Having assistant manager Billy Brown sent to the stand didn’t matter. Hearts tackled all of the above hurdles head on as they and their vociferous supporters continue building momentum.
You only need hear the ear-piercing roar which greets every Hearts goal this season. Everyone connected to Hearts is out to defy the odds, and belief that they can overcome the 15-point deduction for entering administration is growing by the week.
The passion was typified by Brown. He is 62, working without pay, yet he celebrated the winning goal like an excited teenager. His joy prompted an angry reaction from Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes when Brown encroached on the Aberdeen technical area. McInnes pushed Brown away and an angry exchange began which ended with both men sent to the stand by referee Alan Muir.
“I wouldn’t say it’s bad blood. We’re all passionate people and there’s a lot at stake,” explained Gary Locke, the Hearts manager. “Aberdeen have started well and they will be up there this season. We are obviously fighting a different cause.
“I think it just shows what it meant to both dugouts – myself and my backroom team and Del [McInnes] and Doc [Tony Docherty, Aberdeen assistant]. It was something out of nothing, really. There is passion in games and you maybe react in a manner you shouldn’t, but it’s not something I’m worried about. I was just more interested in the fact we’d scored a goal.
“He [Brown] is getting a bit old for that carry on. I’m actually surprised because I normally expect him to be calming me down. It was just his celebration. The technical areas aren’t exactly a million miles apart. You think you’re maybe harshly done by [conceding an equaliser] and then you score a winner.
“Questions would have to be asked if you didn’t show a bit of passion.”
McInnes composed himself to give his verdict on an incident which saw a police officer intervene to keep the peace. “I’m disappointed,” he said. “I’ve never seen another member of the opposition team come right into our technical area to celebrate a goal. As soon as I put my hands on him to push him back I’m guilty. I apologised to the officials. I do think I was wrong, there’s no question of that.”
It was an unseemly moment, but there were plenty of incidents to savour in what was an action-packed 90 minutes. Again, the Hearts youth academy was responsible for producing their club’s goalscorers – Jamie Walker and Jordan McGhee. Every Hearts scorer this season has been a Riccarton graduate. Indeed, 16 of Locke’s 18-man matchday squad on Saturday were reared there. Ryan Stevenson is injured, so unless Danny Wilson or Jamie Hamill score then whoever ripples the rigging will likely be a youth protégé.
Youngsters are known for rebelling and there is a certain contempt within the Hearts squad for this points deduction. They are rising to the challenge and appear to be enjoying the battle to overcome the odds.
“It was some game. I think we have a tendency to knock our game, but that had everything. It was great viewing for everybody who came along,” said Locke. “It means everything to us to win it. We were 15 points adrift and up against it, there’s no doubt about it, but you can see the togetherness of the whole football club.
“It was a fantastic effort from everyone. We go down to ten men and you think a point would be a great result. It was a great ball in and big Jordan pulled away at the back stick for a great header. He’s 17, but I had no qualms putting him on. He’s a fantastic football player and he’s a lad who will have a big future.”
Walker had scored from more than 20 yards out to open the scoring – his second goal in two games – however, it was Aberdeen who fashioned the first half’s clearer openings. Had Scott Vernon’s ball control been better when he was put in behind the Hearts defence, the visitors could have been two or three goals up by the interval.
“We’re more frustrated than anything,” explained McInnes. “We passed the ball and created chances. We knew Hearts had a cause and a passionate crown behind them, but we’re frustrated at not making more of our opportunities in the first half.”
Aberdeen had a reasonable penalty claim ignored six minutes from the interval when McKay appeared to climb over Vernon in an aerial challenge. The travelling support of almost 3000 people appealed, but referee Muir allowed play to continue. The half-time whistle sounded with McInnes’ team in the ascendancy and Hearts relieved not to have conceded.
Concussion forced McKay off earlier in the second period, with McGhee taking his place. Hearts then had to reorganise further when they were reduced to ten men. McHattie challenged the Aberdeen substitute Calvin Zola from behind and played the ball, however he was judged to have impeded his opponent in doing so. Muir pointed to the penalty spot.
McGinn’s composed finish restored parity which Aberdeen entirely deserved at that stage. Hearts’ task appeared to be consolidating and holding out for a draw. Yet their young academy players were not finished. It was Aberdeen’s first goal at Tynecastle in more than three-and-a-half years since January 2010, although Locke protested to both the assistant referee and fourth official about the decision.
Peter Pawlett was cautioned for diving when Walker charged in to challenge him on the edge of the Hearts penalty area. At first glance, that looked a more obvious penalty than the one already given, but Muir disagreed and brandished his yellow card.
“Peter felt he was caught. My initial reaction was that it was a penalty,” said McInnes. “I thought the boy had come in from a bad angle and caught Peter. I know he has a reputation and maybe that goes before him, but I thought he was outstanding for us.”
Aberdeen were pressing, but they also looked vulnerable in defence. With three minutes remaining, a hoisted free-kick by Hearts substitute Callum Tapping evaded everyone in the visitors’ penalty area. McGhee found himself in space at the back post to head his first senior goal into an unguarded net with goalkeeper Nicky Weaver posted missing. Again, the Tynecastle roar was spine-tingling.
After Brown and McInnes were dispatched to the stand, the dramatic last few seconds included a brilliant Jamie MacDonald save from the Aberdeen substitute Josh Magennis before Callum Paterson appeared to wrestle Zola to the ground. Hearts were very much in mouths, but no penalty was given.
“I didn’t see a lot in that one,” said Locke, who admitted he thought the previous challenge by Walker on Pawlett was a penalty. “Obviously there’s no chance I’m wanting a penalty given in the 92nd minute. Overall I think we should be talking about the game. It was action-packed with incidents all over the place. The two teams were desperate for three points and there was a lot of quality involved.”
He was correct. Many people talk Scottish football down, but Saturday’s entertainment at Tynecastle was true value for money. The defiant attitude is serving everyone well in Gorgie.