Nobody ever said it was going to be a stroll in the park for Hearts ahead of their trip to part-timers Dumbarton – and so it proved.
Saturday’s stalemate on the banks of the River Clyde was a subtle reminder to all those in maroon that the chase for Championship-winning medals and a return to the top tier is just about to move up a notch.
The Gorgie side, for the first time this season, failed to find the opposition’s net and were lucky if they offered even a quarter of the attacking flair that had seen Robbie Neilson’s men so convincingly dismantle previous conquests Falkirk and Raith Rovers prior to the international break.
However, the vast majority of the acclaim must go the way of the hosts, who were far from intimidated by the high-flyers from the Capital in what will have been a hugely satisfying point for the Sons manager and former Hibs captain, Ian Murray.
The visitors’ top-end cavalry of Osman Sow, James Keatings, Billy King and Sam Nicholson were unable to impose the spark that the Hearts supporters have come to expect so early in the season. Instead, the 700 or so Jambos at the Bet Butler Stadium filtered out the turnstiles with reasonable content that top spot in the table had been reclaimed after temporarily relinquishing their position to near-chasing Rangers on Friday evening.
As expected, Neilson opted to deploy the fit again Neil Alexander in goal ahead of Jack Hamilton and with Prince Buaben serving the first of his two-match suspension following his dismissal against the Bairns, Jason Holt returned to the fold alongside Morgaro Gomis in midfield.
However, the Hearts boss was forced to reshuffle his pack as early as the 13th minute as Kevin McHattie was unable to continue following a knock to his left knee and was replaced by Adam Eckersley.
“It was difficult with it being so early on,” Neilson admitted. “Kevin got a bad one and had to come off so we had to change it around a bit, but I’m not making any excuses. Dumbarton were good and we weren’t as good as we can be and at the end of the day, we didn’t manage to score any goals.
“I thought Dumbarton played well and we certainly didn’t play as well as we can. We took too long to do things – the pitch was sticky, but we still should have shifted it a bit more and didn’t do the things we were trying to do. It’s a difficult place to come to as they’re well set up, they work hard for one another and it was a big game for them with us coming so it’s a point, a clean sheet and we’re still top of the league.”
There was further optimism among the Hearts faithful prior to kick-off with Soufian El Hassnaoui, fresh from his under-20 goalscoring exploits against Inverness last week, again listed on a subs’ bench which also included new Spanish signing Miguel Pallardo.
Another vocal support had travelled west as they tried to spur their heroes forward in the opening stages but, if anything, it was the hosts who looked the more assured in the final third.
But after soaking up the early pressure from the home outfit, Keatings was presented with an opportunity to test Dan Rogers in the Dumbarton goal from an Eckersley cross, but was found wanting as his wayward header failed to test the goalkeeper from inside the penalty area.
At the other end, on-loan St Johnstone striker Chris Kane, last month’s matchwinner against Livingston, found space and time to turn at the edge of the box, but his low-driven shot flashed across Alexander’s goal before the same player called the Hearts No. 1 into action just moments later to stop his net-bound header.
Gomis was certainly asserting his experience in the engine room, breaking up play and trying to make things happen for Hearts in the Dumbarton half, but all too often the final pass went astray as their opponents’ defence stood firm.
Sow should have capitalised on Holt’s effort from distance as Rogers palmed the ball in the way of the Swede, but the striker’s instinct let him down as he miscued his effort straight back into the path of the goalkeeper, who acted instinctively to keep his side level at the break.
Neilson urged his players on after the interval, a call they duly responded to as they chased and hunted down the elusive goal that would maintain the perfect start to life in the Championship. However, it simply wasn’t to be as Keatings, Nicholson and substitute Jamie Walker’s efforts all went in vain during a second period that Hearts dominated for long spells.
Neilson was, understandably, visibly disappointed, but stressed their main rivals will similarly come up against some stiff opposition when they make the journey to play under “the rock”.
“It’s a really difficult venue to come to,” Neilson remarked. “People will have thought coming down to Dumbarton would have been easy, but it’s not. I’ve played in and been involved in games before where you get turned over three or four-nil because they do things right, they sit in, defend well and get eight or nine men behind the ball and make it hard.
“We just didn’t do enough to break them down so we can’t really have any complaints. I thought some of our own performances were very good, some were average and others not so good, so we’ll need to work on them this week in training and make sure we do better in the match with Cowdenbeath.”
It was inevitable the Tynecastle side would drop points at some stage in the campaign, Dumbarton perhaps not the venue the majority of Hearts fans had envisaged given the nature of the club’s opening month as a second-tier outfit.
Nevertheless, with back-to-back home fixtures against the Blue Brazil and Livingston on the horizon, Neilson’s men will return to the field confident of chalking up their third and fourth victories in front of their own fans already this season.