JAMIE HAMILL must be wondering what he did wrong in a previous life.
Two weeks ago, the Hearts midfielder was sent off in a 2-0 SPFL Premiership defeat by Inverness after blocking a shot with his head, only for the referee to deem it had hit his hand.
That dismissal was overturned after the Jambos appealed the decision, allowing Hamill to play in Saturday’s clash with Celtic. However, the 27-year-old was wrongly punished again after conceding the penalty which sent the champions on their way to victory at Tynecastle.
After Kris Commons converted the spot kick, Jason Holt’s leveller proved in vain as Anthony Stokes and debut boy Teemu Pukki rounded off the scoring.
It could all have been so different if referee Willie Collum had taken an alternative view of the incident which handed Neil Lennon’s side an early lead.
Hamill didn’t even appear to know where he was when the ball came back off his arm, so there was no way that it could have been argued it was a deliberate movement towards the ball.
There also appeared to be a shove from Stokes to factor in, not to mention the fact that the former Kilmarnock man was probably less than a yard away from the ball when it was struck in his direction. It wasn’t even a clear goalscoring opportunity.
Hearts manager Gary Locke admitted that the decision to award the spot kick had left him and his players both confused and frustrated, saying: “The players gave us everything and that is all that you can ask for.
“We were puzzled. We have been in the game a long, long time and you can normally tell when something is a penalty.
“If the other team are appealing and going bananas about it [then fair enough], but the fact that no-one in the stadium thought that was a penalty, apart from one – and unfortunately he was the most important man – tells its own story, I think.
“Obviously we’re already up against it this season and that doesn’t help us, but what can you do? He is not going to change his mind once he has made the decision. We have just got to put it behind us and hope that, over the course of the season, these things will even themselves out.”
As if that decision hadn’t infuriated the Hearts fans enough, they were incandescent with rage later in the game when Efe Ambrose appeared to handle a Hamill free-kick just before the hour mark in the penalty box, but that went without punishment. “I don’t want to get too drawn into it,” Locke added, “but it is frustrating because it is difficult enough to beat Celtic without decisions like those ones going against you.”
There is no doubt Celtic had the better of the chances throughout, but Hearts battled every step of the way and, had it not been for those two calls from Collum, the final score could certainly have been more positive for Hearts. They have fought their way to good results against the likes of Hibs and Aberdeen, but the game against the champions was their biggest test of the season so far.
Locke made three changes to the side which lost to Inverness, with skipper Danny Wilson and fellow defender Kevin McHattie both available again after suspension. Billy King was also added to the starting line-up, with Jordan McGhee, Callum Tapping and David Smith dropping out.
Collum’s performance was a source of frustration for the Hearts supporters throughout, but the home side did have an early chance after Emilio Izaguirre was judged to have handled an attempted pass from Holt. McHattie stepped up to take the free kick and almost caught Fraser Forster out as he seemed to spot the curling effort late, the Celtic goalkeeper only just getting down to his right in time to tip it away.
Up until that point, Hearts had held their own, but matters were taken out of their hands by the penalty decision.
There was a stunned silence as Collum pointed to the spot, with most people in the stadium left scratching their heads as to the reason for the penalty.
Commons wasn’t about to waste time arguing over the justification of the award and stepped up to smash the ball home from 12 yards, with Jamie MacDonald diving in the opposite direction.
They could have doubled their advantage soon after, only for Stokes to pull his shot wide of MacDonald’s left-hand post, and the Irishman then had the ball in the back of the net just before the half-hour mark, only for it to be ruled out for offside.
After the break Celtic started to pile on the pressure and were camped in the Hearts half for the first ten minutes of the second half – but it was the Tynecastle side who were next on the scoresheet.
The goal came in the 56th minute after Jamie Walker cut the ball back into the path of McHattie. His shot came off Ambrose back out into the path of Holt, and the little midfielder lashed an unstoppable shot low into the net beyond Forster, although there was a suggestion of a deflection off the big Nigerian defender, who had tried to close Holt down.
The home celebrations which followed lasted only seven minutes though, as Stokes leathered home a superb goal in 63 minutes, doing most of the work himself.
And Stokes had a huge part to play as the visitors rounded off the scoring near the end, taking the ball to the bye line and scooping the ball perfectly into the six yard box for substitute Pukki to head home from close range right in front of the noisy Celtic support.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon admitted that his side had been made to work for the points by Locke’s youngsters, but felt that his side had responded well to Hearts bagging the equaliser.
He said: “We looked powerful, as you’d expect against a young team, but we were very professional as well.
“I thought our reaction to the Hearts goal was excellent. Just a little more care with the final ball and the finish, we would have won more comprehensively.”