Robbie Neilson hailed a “magnificent” display from Hearts after they began their Premiership campaign with a gallant defeat at the hands of Celtic in an exhilarating showdown which could easily have gone either way.
The Tynecastle side had spent the previous couple of weeks under something of a cloud after their chastening Europa League defeat by Maltese team Birkirkara, and many supporters feared the worst in the build-up to the meeting with Brendan Rodgers’ title favourites.
However, Hearts defied the pre-match scepticism by giving the defending champions an almighty fright before they eventually prevailed with a winner, against the run of play, from £4million debutant Scott Sinclair with ten minutes remaining.
The hosts, who fielded an attack-minded team and went at Celtic from the outset, fell behind to a James Forrest goal but hauled themselves back into it courtesy of a penalty which was dubiously won and subsequently converted by Jamie Walker. For long periods of the second half, Hearts, with seven players aged 23 or under in their starting line-up, looked the likelier winners before Sinclair applied the finishing touch to a rapid burst down the left from Leigh Griffiths.
“We’re disappointed with the result but I thought the performance was magnificent,” said the head coach. “We’ve got a young goalkeeper, young full-backs, a young centre-back, two young wingers and a young striker and I thought they worked admirably today, dominated a lot of the game, played a lot of good football and put Celtic under a lot of pressure. We probably should have taken something from the game.”
Few would be of a mind to argue against that assertion. Although a victory was always viewed as a tall order for Hearts, the head coach at least needed a positive performance in order to ease the pressure that had built in the wake of the Europa League exit last month. With the perception lingering – rightly or wrongly – that Hearts can be too cautious against Scotland’s stronger teams, the home support were buoyed by the sight of two strikers, debutant Tony Watt and Conor Sammon, in the starting line-up, along with two natural wingers, Sam Nicholson and Walker, and two energetic, box-to-box midfielders, Arnaud Djoum and Don Cowie. The latter wore the captain’s armband in the absence of the suspended Alim Ozturk and produced an excellent individual display which set the tone for a high-octane team performance.
“The fans responded positively to the performance because they knew we were on the front foot,” said Neilson. “The two-week period of not having a game has been great for us because it’s allowed us to work on things. We never really had that chance before the European games because it was all about fitness first. We changed the style a bit for this one and I think it suited us. The two strikers were great for us, although we’re still to see the best of them. The two central midfielders were great as well.”
Hearts’ intent was signalled when Sammon won a corner off Kolo Toure within the opening minute. In addition to this, the impressive Irishman pinged an effort wide from 20 yards out and then latched on to a Cowie pass down the right channel and drilled over a cross that just eluded Nicholson at the back post. All of this in the first five minutes as the hosts made the type of high-tempo start their supporters craved.
However, the wind was removed from their sails in the eighth minute when Forrest curled in a superb left-footed shot after Igor Rossi’s tackle on Callum McGregor had broken into his path 20 yards out. There was an element of controversy about the visitors’ goal, however, as Stuart Armstrong, standing in an offside position, appeared to be in the line of sight of Jack Hamilton, the Hearts goalkeeper. “The referee made his decision and we were disappointed because at that point of the game we were playing well and creating loads of chances and getting into great areas,” said Neilson. “But we managed to recover from it well.”
Indeed they did. After Watt had headed a Callum Paterson cross wide of a gaping goal, Griffiths had missed an attempted lob and Hamilton had done well to turn away a deflected shot from the excellent Forrest, Hearts drew level in contentious fashion in the 35th minute. Walker won a penalty after going down under a challenge from Kieran Tierney just inside the box, but the unanimous feeling in the stadium was it was a soft award. Scott Brown, the Celtic captain, made no bones about what he thought of it. “He is really good at that, he should be at Rio,” clearly inferring he should be competing in diving at the Olympics. “It was a dive.... cheat – what else can you say? The referee has come out at half-time and said he got it completely wrong. The wee guy dives and you have to expect that. There is no place in football for cheats and that has been a couple of times here now.”
Walker insisted he was entitled to go down. “I felt contact,” he protested. “I knocked the ball on and I just seen him coming out the corner of my eye and I felt contact so I went down. At the end of the day I’m not the referee and I don’t give the decisions. He gave the penalty.”
Walker made no mistake in converting his spot-kick before collecting a booking for celebrating in front of the 1500 visiting supporters. Rossi had to head a Griffiths effort off the line to keep Hearts level before Watt, playing against his former club, twice tested Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon, also playing against his old team, with powerful strikes from the edge of the box as the hosts finished the first half strongly.
Celtic’s most sustained spell of pressure came in the first ten minutes of the second half when Griffiths alone had five attempts at goal, albeit none of them from clear-cut chances. Hearts then regained a foothold and, without creating anything gilt-edged of their own, were beginning to look the likelier side to win it. Sammon, John Souttar and substitute Robbie Muirhead, who looked lively after replacing the Irishman, all had opportunities to put Neilson’s team ahead before they were hit by a brilliant breakaway goal, from their own corner kick, with ten minutes remaining. Griffiths, who hadn’t been at his best, produced his finest moment of the match as he darted down the left and delivered a perfect cross for the equally rapid Sinclair, who gleefully rammed home from close range before collecting a booking for leaving the field to celebrate. The goal took the sting out of Hearts’ charge, although they did threaten a late equaliser with Cowie testing Gordon and substitute Prince Buaben sending an acrobatic volley just past.
Despite the result, Hearts’ fans could have no complaints about their team’s performance. Instead, any ire they had was directed predominantly towards referee John Beaton, who booked 11 players, seven wearing maroon. The failure to send off Brown for a foul shortly after he had been booked for dissent particularly incensed the home support. “It’s the consistency of it, that’s the thing that annoys you as a coach,” said Neilson. “We got fined last year for our discipline and you saw today that we were getting booked for one thing and Celtic players were not getting booked for others.”