AS expected of a game which could potentially relegate one team involved, there was no shortage of drama or controversy at Dens Park. Hearts were on the wrong end of all of it.
After the visitors had captain Andy Webster ordered off with less than half an hour gone, Ryan Conroy’s deflected free-kick ten minutes from the end preserved Dundee’s SPL place for another week at least.
Gary Locke, the Hearts manager, struggled to keep his emotions in check at full-time and felt let down by referee John Beaton’s decision to dismiss Webster. The defender committed two fouls whilst on the pitch – one for pulling down Carl Finnigan and the other for barging into the same player challenging for an aerial ball – and was booked for both.
The subsequent red card made an already awkward task even more difficult against a Dundee side fighting for their SPL existence.
This is not the kind of tension-filled occasion Hearts want to be associated with towards the end of a season. Their aspirations lie in the top half of the table but inconsistent results conspired to leave them in the bottom six.
Pertinently, their scorelines against Dundee this year are symptomatic of the malaise. Four fixtures between the clubs have produced three 1-0 wins for the Tayside club. Saturday’s was by far their most important as John Brown took charge for the first time since being named manager permanently.
Circumstances surrounding this match were never going to allow for a display of free-flowing football. Dundee were tense and nervous to start with, although Brown’s trademark fighting spirit was certainly evident in his players.
The result alters little for Hearts in terms of the league table but that was no consolation to Locke as he seeks to build momentum ahead of next season. He and his players arrived in Dundee following two successive league wins for the first time this season, against Ross County and Kilmarnock. After 28 minutes, their hopes of a third virtually evaporated.
The red card – followed minutes from the end by Nicky Riley’s dismissal – ruined any chance this match had of becoming a spectacle.
Hearts retreated into their shell to protect their own goal. Relentless pressure from the hosts during the second half eventually yielded a deserved breakthrough.
“I’d rather not talk about the sending off because all that will happen is I’ll get into trouble,” said Locke.
“He (Webster) has gone for the ball. If he’s leading with his arm, fair enough, but he’s genuinely gone for the ball. The two boys clash heads and then we end up with ten men. To say I’m not happy about it is an understatement.
“It was always going to be a difficult game with what was at stake, but it certainly would’ve been a lot easier if we had 11 men on the pitch.
“I felt we did enough to get something out of the game. We were well organised when we went down to ten men and we looked comfortable. We went to two banks of four with Sutty (John Sutton) up front, then we brought Dale Carrick on at half-time to try and get closer to Sutty. They didn’t create a lot and it was always going to take a goal like they scored to win the game.”
Brown seems to revel in his hard-man public persona and no-one can deny he has launched a few rockets up a few backsides both inside and outside Dens Park. Asked if St Mirren should start to worry after Conroy’s free-kick reduced the gap between the bottom two SPL clubs to eight points with three games remaining, he replied: “I think you’ll be smelling it coming from them. They’re going to Tynecastle next week, never an easy place. Unless they’ve got Old Spice to cover it, I think it’ll be an interesting weekend.”
The only blight on an otherwise good day from Dundee’s perspective was the late sending off of substitute Riley for violent conduct. He clashed with the young Hearts defender Kevin McHattie and was issued a straight red card.
Again, Brown used the incident to outline his own uncompromising style. “Handbags,” was how he described it. “I think he raised his hands to his (McHattie’s) face so the referee was right. I remember the days when you used to give out right hooks and it was still okay.
“It’s a great day for us and it takes it another week. Hopefully Hearts can get a result on Saturday before we play Aberdeen on Sunday.
“It was fantastic for the fans to see us keep at it. Hearts put in a great shift with ten men and, if they do that will 11 men against St Mirren, you never know.
“We might take it for another week. I just said to our boys to win the game and whatever happens elsewhere we’ll deal with that.
“I got word St Mirren were 3-2 up at Easter Road and then we heard about the equaliser so that takes it another week. It makes it interesting.”