THIS was a much improved performance from a Hearts team that has regularly looked beleaguered in recent weeks.
They were far more confident and better organised and could consider themselves unfortunate not to have stopped the Motherwell juggernaut. That John Sutton scored the game’s only goal merely served as a reminder of how the impact of administration continues at Tynecastle.
The Englishman opted to rejoin Motherwell last summer after being asked to accept a wage cut by Hearts’ administrators BDO. He hadn’t exactly thrived during two years in Gorgie but, nonetheless, would have been a vital experienced striker for the Edinburgh club to keep for this season. He returned west and on this, his first visit back to his former employers, it was almost fated that he should make the afternoon’s most telling contribution.
Sutton sprinted on to a through pass from the classy Iain Vigurs to round Jamie MacDonald and score from the tightest angle shortly before the interval. That proved the decisive moment of an open and fairly entertaining encounter, giving Motherwell a sixth consecutive win.
Hearts, though, could be encouraged by their own endeavours. There were improved performances from defenders like Dylan McGowan and Jordan McGhee while goalkeeper MacDonald was his usual reliable self with several important saves. Teenage striker Dale Carrick made his first start of the season and looked dangerous through his pace and movement.
Perhaps the most confident man in maroon was midfielder Scott Robinson, a player who has often flattered to deceive. He tackled tenaciously and moved the ball well on what was his best display of the season. His block on Lionel Ainsworth’s volley in the first half was one of many highlights.
Hearts’ overall performance was a confident and assured one, although they are now 20 points adrift at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership, they matched Motherwell in many departments. Robinson explained that the dressing-room atmosphere remains upbeat despite the club’s lowly predicament. We’re all still together. We just don’t really seem to be getting the breaks,” he said. “If we were short on confidence, Motherwell would be coming here and beating us by three or four. We’re happy with how we went about our business and I think we were unlucky not to get a draw.
“It’s going to take a miracle to turn this round but, until it’s mathematically impossible, we’ll keep fighting and keep giving it our all. You saw the effort and commitment we put in. We’ll keep fighting for the jerseys.
“You need to be a good professional and not let the fans down. They’ve been brilliant this season, turning up week in and week out. They’ve been right behind us so we want to get a few wins for them. We’ve got a massive League Cup semi-final coming up soon so, if we can win that and reach another final, it hopefully won’t be the worst season in the world.
“The goal was a good finish from Sutty. It’s a hard angle to score from. Sutty’s a good guy. He’s a good professional and I’m sure he’s delighted to get his goal. He deserves it. Apart from that, I thought we played really well.”
Robinson’s thoughts were echoed by his manager, Gary Locke. “I thought we played really well in the second half. I thought we played well for the whole 90 minutes, to be fair. I just hope that, one week, we’ll get a wee bit of luck that we’re obviously needing. The players gave us everything and, on another day, we might have got a better result.
“Sutton scoring the goal kind of sums up the way our season has been going. We tried to keep him in the summer. You let him go and he scores the winner against you.”
What Hearts lacked was a touch of craft. Motherwell had it in spades. Vigurs was outstanding, likewise the veteran Keith Lasley, Ainsworth was a constant menace and James McFadden a probing presence in behind Sutton. Such experience coupled with a stubborn defence – which has conceded only twice in their six victories – was always likely to prove too much for their young hosts.
So it proved. Once Motherwell scored they were quite content to keep possession in a game which often swung from end to end. MacDonald had saved from Vigurs and twice from Ainsworth, but for much of the second half the visitors defended a Hearts onslaught which belied the huge gap between these two teams in the league.
Ryan Stevenson’s right-sided cross inadvertently struck the crossbar and there were shots from Jamie Hamill and Jamie Walker that landed off target. Gunnar Nielsen, Motherwell’s Faroese goalkeeper, pushed Stevenson’s 20-yard strike for a corner in the 65th minute and then did likewise when substitute Jamie Walker tried his luck. McKay and Callum Paterson both had attempts blocked from a corner. It was one of those afternoons for the Edinburgh club.
“First and foremost, Hearts’ second-half performance shows a lot of spirit is still here. The kids were terrific for them,” observed Stuart McCall, the Motherwell manager. “I was pleased with how we played in the first half but we just couldn’t get the first goal. Then it came. It would be wrong for me to say we should have made it easy. Hearts defended well and their keeper has made some very good saves.
“While it’s still 1-0, you are under pressure because the other team has nothing to lose.. Hearts had a right go in the second half. Lionel was through one on one and overran the ball and we had other opportunities and should have made better decisions. I knew it would be difficult and it was.”