TYNECASTLE is a clearly Kenny Shiels’ favourite SPL venue. Five visits to the Gorgie ground since joining Kilmarnock in 2010 have yielded five victories for the Northern Irishman. His team have conceded one goal in that time, scoring 12 in the process. He appears to be Hearts’ ultimate, and unforgiving, enemy.
Shiels was initially assistant to Mixu Paatelainen, but since becoming Kilmarnock manager in January 2011, the Ayrshire side have not lost to Hearts at all. Saturday’s resounding 3-0 win, thanks to Paul Heffernan’s clinical hat-trick, was their eighth consecutive match without defeat against the Edinburgh club. For Hearts fans, watching Kilmarnock win at their ground is getting tiresome.
The final whistle prompted jeers from some Hearts fans, with manager John McGlynn admitting the defeat was “not acceptable”. The public frustration was understandable, although aiming it at a team full of teenagers and youth academy graduates was perhaps ill-advised. Were it not for years of financial mismanagement by the club hierarchy, there would be no need to throw so many inexperienced players into the unforgiving SPL environment all at once.
Kilmarnock were cuter, cleverer and more streetwise than Hearts – and it showed. From five shots on target, they scored three times thanks to the predatory Heffernan. The hosts also had five efforts on target, but, although they recycled the ball well in the first half, they lacked a cutting edge. Michael Ngoo was nullified by an aggressive and dominant Manuel Pascali and few others carried an attacking threat.
“It’s obviously a sore one for us to take,” said McGlynn. “A 3-0 defeat at home to Kilmarnock is not acceptable from Hearts’ point of view, that’s for sure. They set up very difficult to beat in the first half and we tried to break them down. They hit us with a counter-attack – a big switch of play, a ball across goal and we’re not picking up.
“We found ourselves 1-0 down so we changed things and tried to push in the second half and get the goal back. However, we didn’t defend a corner-kick very well. We didn’t win the header or the second ball when it lands on the ground. So we found ourselves 2-0 down. That’s not the way we have been defending this season. The third goal was equally poor from our point of view.”
Enforced defensive changes did not help. Darren Barr – deputising for the injured Marius Zaliukas – clashed heads with Danny Wilson just after the half-hour and he was stretchered off. Wilson departed for stitches but was able to continue after a lengthy delay. As Hearts reorganised, Kilmarnock scored when Heffernan was left unmarked to convert James Dayton’s low cross.
“Unfortunately, there have been massive changes to our defence since the start of the season,” continued McGlynn. “The goals-against column has been good and our defending has been good. It didn’t help losing Darren Barr and being without Marius Zaliukas. Having a different back four which has to then change during the game doesn’t help, but we should have done better. Kilmarnock took their chances, we didn’t take ours.”
In the second half, Heffernan spun to fire an emphatic second goal after William Gros headed down Dayton’s corner. The third arrived when Jamie MacDonald parried Borja Perez’s drive and Heffernan stroked home the rebound. That concluded Kilmarnock’s third successive win over Hearts this season, and yet again it was thoroughly deserved. Heffernan, in particular, was on fire.
“He’s got the chances and he’s put them away and you have to give him credit because you look at what he is playing against. There are three international defenders in there,” said Shiels, referring to Barr, Andy Webster and Danny Wilson. “It was a good outcome and the boys have showed good character again. To beat a club the magnitude of Hearts three times in one season is a terrific record for the boys.
“What you get in February every year is pitches that are not as fluent. That means there is a reduction in the passing volume you can achieve in the game. I was pleased with the way we passed it. I think we counter-attacked well. The dovetail in our co-ordination of the movement was outstanding.”
The result propelled Kilmarnock to fifth place in the SPL, whilst Hearts languish in tenth. “We’re looking at top eight at the moment,” said Shiels. “Some teams have games in hand but we’re in the mix. I think it will be difficult for St Mirren and Hearts to get into that now because they have the League Cup final coming up, which I’m sure is a distraction. When I first came to the Kilmarncok, we’d only scored six goals away from home the whole of the previous season, so it’s a remarkable turnaround in terms of goals.”
The one positive from Hearts’ perspective was that their younger players can only learn from such a difficult afternoon. “It is a learning process all the time for the younger players at this level and having to dig in,” said McGlynn. “It’s great when you get a lot of time on the ball to pass it, and we’re very good at that. We can’t just say the young players have let us down. We all have to defend situations but they will learn from it. That’s the hard bit. We need to take a few of these on the chin to learn and get better.”