With each passing week, Hearts are looking increasingly doomed to relegation. While the 7-0 defeat by Celtic in the Scottish Cup at the start of the month remains their heaviest of the season, yesterday’s abject capitulation at the hands of Kilmarnock was by far the most ominous with regards to their slender hopes of remaining in the Scottish Premiership.
This spirited but limited young Hearts team have been punching above their weight just to remain competitive in their battle to overcome a 15-point deficit and stay in the top flight, but yesterday they conceded four goals for the second time in four league games. Until the onset of this dismal December, Hearts had only once - at home to Celtic - conceded three goals in the Premiership this season. Gary Locke’s frail squad is now creaking badly.
Unlike their first concession of four goals a few weeks ago, when they were deemed unfortunate to lose 4-1 to a Dundee United side riding the cusp of a wave, this time they were lucky to lose “only” by four against a Kilmarnock side viewed for most of the season as one of the weakest in the division. Yesterday’s match was supposed to be the most winnable of a relatively favourable four-game sequence against bottom-six opposition which might have sparked Hearts back into life after a four-month run without a home win in the league and a near-two-month stretch without any kind of victory. Instead it served only to leave everyone of a maroon persuasion more demoralised than ever.
The players looked timid, confidence-shorn and, perhaps understandably given their predicament, utterly beleaguered throughout yesterday’s match. The early-season gusto which brought them seven points from an intoxicating three-game run back in August is now a distant memory as the cold, harsh reality of winter takes its toll. With a squad down to the bare bones in terms of personnel and morale, the roof, predictably enough, appears to be caving in.
With little or no scope to shuffle his pack or bring in fresh faces with the necessary ability to hold their own in the top flight, all Locke can do is try his best to keep his young charges motivated for each match to ensure heavy beatings such as yesterday’s are kept to a minimum. There is little hint of anything turning in his side’s favour, save for the possible return of his most experienced player, Ryan Stevenson, some time next month.
Even then, those few relatively experienced players who remain at Tynecastle are finding the going tough now, with Danny Wilson and Jamie Hamill struggling to maintain their early-season form as they battle manfully to try and keep their youthful team-mates going in such trying circumstances. Indeed, Hamill is now finding himself cast as the scapegoat in the eyes of some, with the former Killie man getting involved in verbals with some critics in Tynecastle’s Main Stand as frustrations boiled over during a harrowing first half in which his old side gave his current team the runaround. Hamill was far from Hearts’ worst player on a day when no-one in maroon, with the exceptions of Brad McKay, Jamie MacDonald and Callum Tapping could be anywhere near content with their work.
Kilmarnock manager Allan Johnston had the luxury of choosing to leave experienced campaigners like Barry Nicholson and Sammy Clingan on the bench.
What Locke would give to be able to call on the same blend of youth and experience as “Magic”, his old Tynecastle team-mate. Indeed, while watching his punchless young team struggle to make any impact on the Kilmarnock goal, the Hearts manager must have cast a glance towards the visiting dugout and recalled the trouble Johnston and his assistant, Sandy Clark, used to routinely inflict on opposition defences in their days as Hearts players.
The Tynecastle side could desperately do with a winger as mesmerising and effective as Johnston was when he broke into the Hearts first team alongside Locke some 20 years ago, while the Hearts manager, forced to deploy the ever-willing pair of Callum Paterson and Stevenson as makeshift strikers this season, can only dream of being able to call on a centre-forward with the physical presence provided by Clark in the 1980s.
Indeed, the Rugby Park side are currently reaping the rewards of their own burgeoning young winger/imposing centre-forward axis, with 19-year-old Chris Johnston and Kris Boyd at the core of this Boxing Day demolition job. While Boyd scored two, bringing his tally for the season to 11, Johnston was equally effective in the rout, playing a part in both of Boyd’s goals, while also chipping in with an absolute peach of his own as Killie had the game tied up just three minutes into the second half.
Hearts, who fielded the same side that battled gamely in last Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Celtic Park, started on the back foot and Kilmarnock, who had already threatened on a couple of earlier occasions, went ahead in 13 minutes when Boyd was on hand six yards out to head home a pinpoint delivery from the left from Johnston.
In a first-half which was interrupted for six minutes as linesman Andy Tait succumbed to injury and had to be replaced by the fourth official, Euan Anderson, Hearts were comprehensively outplayed and rarely looked like scoring. It came as little surprise when they fell further behind five minutes before the break as Johnston skipped in from the left and arced an exquisite curling effort beyond the helpless Jamie MacDonald from around 25 yards out.
Locke responded at half-time by taking off Adam King and David Smith and replacing them with the fit-again Scott Robinson and Billy King, Adam’s older brother. Within three minutes of the restart, Hearts lost a third goal. Boyd outmuscled Wilson outside the box, played the ball wide to Rory McKenzie, then left the Hearts captain for dead as he bolted into the box to slot home the return ball from McKenzie, which was dummied by Johnston on its way into the danger area.
Boyd then squandered two close-range sitters to claim his hat-trick before Kilmarnock took their foot off the gas, allowing Hearts some kind of foothold in the game which they were unable to capitalise on. On the only occasion Hearts found a way past Killie keeper Craig Samson, defender Sean Clohessy was on hand to boot Jamie Walker’s cross off the line, while McKay went closest to netting a consolation when he headed a Robinson corner wide late on.
Kilmarnock, basking in the glory of their sixth consecutive win at Tynecastle, were so comfortable that they seemed to spend the bulk of the last quarter of an hour changing their captain. First the outstanding Pascali was given a standing ovation from the visiting support as he was substituted with 13 minutes left, taking time out to hand his skipper’s armband to Boyd on his way off. As if to rub salt in Hearts’ wounds, Boyd was then replaced four minutes later and he cheekily took an age to leave the field as he wrapped the armband round Jeroen Tesselaar’s upper arm and then strolled off winking and smiling at the frustrated Hearts support. To add insult to injury, with the game still rumbling on, the big forward then emerged from the away dugout and trudged past the embattled home fans to take a warmdown and soak up the acclaim of the merry-making away support housed in the Roseburn Stand.
Those delirious Killie fans were given further reason for cheer as, with virtually the last action of the match, McKenzie sealed an emphatic victory with a crisp strike from the edge of the box which flew in off the inside of MacDonald’s left-hand post. Incredibly, it took the aggregate score in the last six meetings between the sides at Tynecastle to 16-1 in Kilmarnock’s favour.
Home humblings at the hands of the Ayrshire men are certainly nothing new for Hearts, but none have been as excruciating as yesterday’s. When one of your main relegation rivals is lording it on your own patch as they march 21 points clear, you know you’re in a spot of bother.