As Partick Thistle’s players celebrated Premiership safety in front of their boisterous fans at Tynecastle last night, an unusual air of contentment was detectable amongst the Hearts support.
Their team lost, largely due to Thistle’s storming second-half performance. However, the impact on Edinburgh rivals Hibs was welcome consolation for the stadium’s regulars.
Partick overturned a 2-1 half-time deficit to win 4-2. Coupled with Kilmarnock’s 1-0 victory over St Mirren, that leaves Hibs in the Premiership’s dreaded second-bottom spot. They face Kilmarnock at Easter Road on Saturday needing to win to avoid a relegation play-off. Hearts were relegated weeks ago, but their supporters took a certain amount of satisfaction home last night knowing their neighbours may yet join them in the Championship.
Indeed, when Lyle Taylor equalised Callum Paterson’s opening goal in a first half largely controlled by Hearts, a chant of “Hibs are going down” swiftly broke out from a section of home fans. The game was played amid a strange atmosphere overall, but that did not result in a shortage of drama or quality. Far from it.
Paterson scored an impressive opener, cancelled out by Taylor’s classy finish, then came Danny Wilson’s header. With Hearts 2-1 ahead at the interval, Thistle were sitting in the relegation play-off place as results stood at that stage. Perhaps that inspired a stirring second-half revival.
Gary Fraser lashed an exquisite goal from 25 yards to bring the score level at 2-2. Then came Lee Mair’s glancing header and a fourth on the counter attack from the outstanding Kallum Higginbotham, thus ensuring Thistle’s top-flight survival.
“The first emotion is relief, massive relief,” said Alan Archibald, the Partick Thistle manager. “We’re just glad to get over the line and avoid those play-offs because I don’t envy the managers in them. We thought we deserved to win and we said to the players at half-time that they had let themselves down in the first half. I think they knew that. We didn’t pass the ball in the first half, except for a wee spell after we scored. The second half was much more like them and credit to them for taking on board what we said at half-time.”
Gary Locke, the Hearts manager, was asked if he had a preference over who might join his club in the slide into the Championship. “No, not at all,” he replied, diplomatically. “I’ve said all along that I only concentrate on Heart of Midlothian. Whatever happens at the bottom of the table, there’s nothing we can do. We’ve just got to try and win our games. I’m proud of the effort the players have put in all season.
“I was pleased with our first-half performance. We played really well and scored two good goals. Their second equaliser was a stunning strike and I’m a wee bit disappointed with the third goal we lost. In the main, I think the players deserve enormous credit because they’ve been fantastic over the last couple of months. Last night, they looked a wee bit tired towards the end and that’s understandable with a young side.
“Partick did really well in the second half and played some good stuff. Credit to them. They battled really hard and look as if they have a really good spirit about them. You could see from their reaction at the end that they’re delighted to get the three points.
“I’ve praised our fans all season and last night you saw again what a fantastic support we’ve got. With that behind us, hopefully we can bounce back straight away. They’ve been right behind myself and the team all season and it’s great to see. Everybody in the club is pulling in the one direction.”
With Ryan Stevenson absent through a knee injury, Jamie Hamill returned for Hearts. There was also a rare outing for Mark Ridgers in goal as Jamie MacDonald took a well-earned rest. Thistle left Kris Doolan out and reinstated Taylor to their forward line.
Ridgers was first into action to stop Higginbotham’s 15th-minute drive, but seconds later Paterson opened the scoring at the opposite end. He meandered forward unchallenged almost from the halfway line to plant a fine left-footed effort low into Paul Gallacher’s net from 20 yards. It was the teenager’s 11th goal of a season in which he is likely to finish top goalscorer at Tynecastle.
Billy King scampered on to Dale Carrick’s through ball moments later only to lift his finish high into the Roseburn Stand.
Hearts’ opening had been crisp and assertive, but they lost a sloppy equaliser shortly after the half-hour. Higginbotham clipped a perfectly weighted first-time pass through for Taylor to chase, and the striker showed his pace before stroking the ball low beyond Ridgers. That prompted those chants of “Hibs are going down” around the stadium. However, of more immediate concern to Hearts was the impetus Thistle took from their goal.
The visitors poured forward in numbers as half-time approached and Hearts earned some respite when Mair fouled Sam Nicholson 30 yards from Gallacher’s goal. The set-piece was ruthlessly exploited when Kevin McHattie floated a cross for Wilson to power a header into the same corner where Paterson had put the first goal.
A 2-1 interval advantage didn’t flatter Locke’s side, but Thistle’s threat had been more than evident during the first period. It manifested itself again shortly after play restarted when Taylor volleyed Higginbotham’s pinpoint cross into the Hearts net, only to have his celebrations killed by an offside flag. Seconds later, the vociferous Thistle fans rejoiced at a legitimate goal – and a fine one at that. From 25 yards, midfielder Fraser unleashed a spectacular strike high into Ridgers’ top-right corner. It was the finest goal yet of a game containing some very impressive finishes.
Ridgers required to use his fingertips to deny Taylor after Wilson’s clearance ricocheted into the striker’s path. Yet again, Hearts found themselves pinned back in the aftermath of Thistle scoring. The pressure yielded a third goal for the visitors in the 68th minute. Higginbotham delivered a corner which Aaron Taylor-Sinclair headed downwards for Mair to glance the ball past Ridgers.
Thistle were by now looking emphatic and scored a fourth on the breakaway through the outstanding Higginbotham. Nicholson misjudged a long ball hoisted forward and Taylor’s vicious shot was parried by Ridgers. The onrushing Higginbotham was ruthless in blasting the rebound beneath the goalkeeper to secure a vital win and guarantee Premiership football at Firhill next season.