A STUNNING late goal from substitute Saulius Mikoliunas gave Hearts victory in an excellent opening-day match at Tynecastle.
In May, Motherwell manager Mark McGhee knocked back the head coach’s job at Hearts, but that spurning added no edge to the occasion, there being plenty enough excitement in the play alone.
For once, the pre-season anticipation was not to end in disappointment. There was a feast of attacking end-to-end play, not to mention five goals and much controversy.
Motherwell’s fans would be pleased that McGhee’s side remained committed to their attractive passing game which gave them a bright start. Hearts seemed a tad nervous at first and spent the opening quarter of the match in a cautious formation, relying on breakaways and with striker Jamie Mole often on his own in the Motherwell half.
Bob Malcolm had slimmed himself down, but the former Rangers player’s combative nature had in no way diminished. Inside six minutes his name was in referee Ian Brines’s book for a despairing lunge at Andy Driver. The first real chance fell to Audrius Ksanavicius after nine minutes, but Brines blew his whistle for the striker’s foul on Stephen Craigan just as Graeme Smith superbly saved the Hearts man’s effort.
Brines’s next intervention after 13 minutes was even more telling. He ruled that Ksanavicius had ‘simulated’ his fall after a Craigan half-tackle and instead of collecting a penalty, the Lithuanian got a yellow card. Perhaps to even things up, Brines also gave Hearts keeper Steven Banks the benefit of the doubt when he appeared to handle the ball outside his area under pressure from Chris Porter.
Hearts began to get men forward, and after 25 minutes, a breathtaking move involving Mole, Driver, and Ksanavicius ended with Michael Stewart taking a perfect first touch and slamming the ball under Smith from 15 yards for a very good goal. Shortly afterwards, Smith reacted when a deflected shot from Driver curled over him, the keeper just managing to tip the ball onto the bar. Motherwell raced upfield and in 33 minutes, Stephen Hughes cut inside Jason Thomson and Marius Zaliukas to stroke the ball into the path of David Clarkson for a close-range equaliser.
Stewart and Keith Lasley were booked for a touch of handbag waving, before Hearts took the lead again. Craigan and Mark Reynolds seemed to have the ball covered, but Ksanavicius nipped between them and pressed home as the boots flew, his shot slipping under Smith.
After a half of end-to-end excitement, the second half went into a lull at times. Driver was causing all sorts of problems on the left until he was injured and eventually replaced, while Stewart and Zaliukas both went close with snapshots. The visitors had plenty possession but precious few chances.
After a rash of substitutions, the game exploded back into life when Clarkson equalised with a low shot with ten minutes remaining. The home fans in the 14,000 crowd were stunned, but a minute later were in raptures when, just five minutes after coming on, Mikoliunas burst down the right wing and sped in to the box, firing an unstoppable shot high past Smith to give Csaba Laszlo his first win as Hearts boss.
Hearts: Banks, Thomson, Zaliukas, Berra, Karipidis, Kingston, Stewart, Wallace, Driver, Ksanavicius, Mole