SCORING against Dundee has proven strangely troublesome for Hearts this season. John Sutton’s bulleted header four minutes from time last night was an emphatic way to blow away the frustration. Both meetings between the clubs this season had ended in 1-0 victories for Dundee, so Sutton became a saviour in scoring with his first touch after coming on as substitute.
Had he not done so, Hearts would be sitting second bottom of the Scottish Premier League today. Dundee remain firmly bottom of the table and 14 points adrift of safety. On last night’s evidence, they look certs for relegation. Hearts had 17 attempts at goal to the visitors’ three, and nine on target to Dundee’s none. That told the story of this match in terms of who was in control.
Much of the resistance came from the 40-year-old Dundee goalkeeper, Rab Douglas. He was again exceptional with a string of breathtaking saves. Not until Sutton and Arvydas Novikovas climbed off the bench six minutes from the end did the breakthrough arrive. The mercurial Lithuanian swung over an inviting cross from the left and Sutton dived to head powerfully into the net at the back post. Hearts had five teenagers in their starting line-up and got tremendous value from all of them, yet it needed an experienced head to decide the final outcome.
“Novikovas and Sutton linked up to get the goal and it was crucial,” said John McGlynn, the Hearts manager. “I felt we merited two, three or four goals because we played exceptionally well and created a number of chances. We were in control of the game, but obviously we didn’t take the chances. The introduction of Arvydas and John worked.
“Once again, I thought Rab Douglas had an excellent game against us. He made some great saves and he just seems to pull out these performances against us. We had to go for it near the end, so that’s why we went 4-4-2 and sacrificed Jason Holt, who was excellent. We needed to get another striker on. Bringing on the fresh legs created something for us.”
Not that Hearts could be described as bland beforehand. Billy King, an 18-year-old forward, made his competitive debut as one of the five teenagers and produced a quite phenomenal display for one so young. Michael Ngoo, Danny Wilson and Callum Tapping made their home debuts. Gary Harkins began the second chapter of his Dundee career after rejoining from Kilmarnock.
Hearts swarmed all over Dundee for most of the first half and benefitted from the understanding already forged between their academy graduates. Fraser Mullen and King interchanged passes seamlessly down the right flank and showed a harmony clearly developed at youth level. Jamie Walker had an attempt blocked after a driving run into the penalty area on 14 minutes, Holt then shot wide before King volleyed over the Dundee crossbar. Walker went closer still after 32 minutes with a vicious low shot that Douglas managed to push for a corner. It was an excellent save from the veteran goalkeeper, but minutes later his goal was preserved merely by good fortune. King skinned Declan Gallagher out on the right flank and clipped his cross towards Ngoo. The Englishman’s header was netbound until it struck Colin Nish on the back and bounced up onto the crossbar.
Dundee failed to register any attempt of note at the Hearts goal in the first half and were guilty of overusing Nish as an out ball when under pressure. That caused them to relinquish possession all too often. The second half started in similar fashion to the first as Hearts pressed forward. They struck the bar again on 53 minutes from Holt’s dipping 25-yard effort. Holt then teed up the unmarked King around ten yards out for what seemed a certain goal, however the youngster pulled his shot wide of target.
King dispatched another effort, this time from outside the penalty area, which Douglas could not hold as the wind and rain swirled around Tynecastle. The goalkeeper did collect Ryan Stevenson’s drive after 67 minutes, and there was a delay for treatment to Marius Zaliukas after a collision with Harkins left the Lithuanian flattened.
The longer the scoreline remained blank, the more confidence Dundee garnered and the more determined their defending became. They held out until four minutes from the end. Hearts introduced substitutes Novikovas and Sutton hoping for a late surge and scored within seconds of their arrival on the pitch. The Lithuanian collected Walker’s crossfield pass and delivered a tantalising cross to the back post which Sutton headed into the net, sparking roars of relief around the stadium.
Novikovas ought to have doubled the advantage sliding in on Ngoo’s low cross, however his finish was marginally wide. Given their troubles scoring against Dundee this season, McGlynn was content to settle for the one goal. He finished the evening offering praise of his young players, and King in particular.
“Young Billy did exceptionally well,” he said. “We had many young players on the pitch, as we did on Saturday. They’re getting their opportunity and I keep saying there is no better time to be a young player at Hearts. There are more and more in the team and our bench was more experienced last night because of that.
“We brought Novikovas, Sutton and Driver on, plus Darren Barr and Mehdi Taouil were on the bench. Michael Ngoo caused Dundee problems and was unlucky not to score in the first half with a header that hit the back of a defender. I think the fans have taken to him very quickly and that’s good. It will settle him into the team and the club. He’s a great addition for us. He actually had trouble finding the ground before the game. I’d have thought the car he has would at least have a sat nav.”
Dundee manager Barry Smith accepted his side were second best. “We feel we can do better all over the park,” he said. “We set ourselves out in an attacking system but possibly it didn’t work.”