A LATE strike by Alan Maybury gave Hearts three points against Dundee after the home side looked to have snatched a draw.
Craig Levein’s side were well short of their form, especially during a dreadful first half, but they continued to do just enough to keep ahead of their rivals for third place, this win having restored a three-point lead over fourth-placed Dunfermline.
It had been just over a month since the two sides faced each other at Dens Park in a CIS cup match which Dundee won 1-0 in extra time. Dundee went into the match in mixed mood having recently gone into administation, while they had failed to win in the league since October.
They started brightly enough against a Hearts side who welcomed back Steven Pressley from injury and Maybury from suspension. Levein’s side, though, did create the first double chance of the match when in quick succession Paul Hartley and Andy Kirk had shots blocked.
Patrick Kisnorbo, playing at left-back, put in a power of work to get up and down his flank and supply crosses several times in the opening half-hour, but none of them posed a real danger to the Dundee defence.
Having found no joy at close range, Hearts attempted to strike from further out, but Jean-Louis Valois’ 25-yard shot from a Kirk knockdown sailed a foot or two over Julian Speroni’s crossbar. Although generally on the back foot, Dundee were not entirely non-existent as an attacking force, and a quick break from midfield almost put Duncan McLean through on goal, only for a sliding tackle by Maybury to clear the ball for a corner.
Mark Fotheringham did have an opportunity to break the deadlock from a Nacho Novo cutback, but Pressley got in a block, showing that both defences were at least maintaining their concentration.
Within a minute of the restart, Hearts scored a goal of stunning simplicity. Picking up a loose ball 30 yards out in a central position, Kirk sent a well-weighted pass out to Maybury on the left wing. The Irishman’s looping cross was met on the six-yard line by Mark de Vries, whose downward header gave Speroni no chance.
The pace of the game picked up immediately as Dundee chased the equaliser and Hearts sought the second goal which would make the points safe. With just over an hour played they were given a timely reminder that one goal might not be enough, when a scramble following a corner saw Neilson block a McLean shot.
At the other end, moments later, Kisnorbo glanced a header just past from a Sloan corner. A match which had been so soporific then threatened to overheat as Lee Wilkie was booked for a challenge on Pressley. Before the action could resume, De Vries was also yellow-carded for having words with the Dundee defender. Finesse may have been in short supply, but at least the teams were now showing some appetite for the fray.
With 11 minutes left, McLean was given another chance, and this time made it count. As four or five men converged on a teasing ball into the box, Craig Gordon could only push it out towards the fair-haired youngster, whose firm strike found the net from 20 yards.
As the home fans urged their team to go for the win, Hearts retook the lead. A Sloan cutback found Maybury, whose shot was just as accurate as McLean’s.
Dundee kept competing, and if they had won a point it would not have been the greatest injustice. Hearts, however, did just enough to keep their noses in front.