Hearts’ never-say-die spirit helps secure a point

Suso Santana scores
Suso Santana scores
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Last week’s war of words between Hearts boss Paulo Sergio and Kilmarnock supremo Kenny Shiels culminated in an on-field battle at Rugby Park that yielded a point apiece for each side, with Suso Santana heading a 92nd minute equaliser to salvage a deserved draw for the Jambos.

In the build-up to the SPL clash in Ayrshire, Shiels accused Sergio of failing to stand up to Hearts’ major shareholder Vladimir Romanov as the latter denied the Portuguese manager the services of first-choice goalkeeper Marian Kello due to contractual issues. Sergio described the criticism by Shiels as “so low that I don’t have words to describe it” and refused to shake the hand of his counterpart before and after the match. With a backdrop of such tension, on-field matters between the two clubs were destined to be anything but straightforward.

“I wish him all the best, but he has to understand why I’m not shaking the hand of the guy who’s saying what he said before,” said Sergio after the match. “I want my team on the newspapers for good things, not things like that. I don’t know about his style, he should respect people. I’m sad about that. I didn’t come to Scotland, a foreign country, to be involved in things like that.”

When the talking began to take place on the pitch, Killie’s Dieter van Tornhout, making his home debut, must have echoed Sergio’s sentiments. The rangey striker certainly did not arrive in Ayshire from Belgium to be involved in such unsavoury incidents as the one that earned him a yellow card for a foul on Jamie Hamill – or his second over-the-top tackle, again on Hamill, early in the second half that provoked a second booking and his sending off. Van Tornhout spurned an early free header from ten yards out from James Fowler’s right wing cross as his nightmare afternoon gradually began to take shape.

With his goal under no threat, Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald breathed another sigh of relief moments later when Mohamadou Sissoko’s header narrowly failed to dip under the crossbar before rebounding off the woodwork and away.

Killie boss Shiels had bemoaned the loss of six players for the match, but his team were on top early in the first half. The absence of their inspirational captain and centre back Manuel Pascali was barely felt by the hosts during the opening half hour, as all the chances arrived at the opposite end. Paul Heffernan flashed a glancing header from Garry Hay’s cross from the left as Killie maintained the pressure on a Hearts defence lacking authority and confidence. Killie created the lion’s share of opportunities at the start of each half but the Jambos enjoyed more possession and finished more strongly in the latter part of both periods.

The closest the Jambos came to troubling Cammy Bell in the Killie goal during the opening 45 minutes was when Andy Driver’s low ball from the left flank found Stephen Elliott at the near post and the Irishman, under pressure, applied the deftest of touches to direct the ball straight at the home custodian.

Rudi Skacel’s shot on the turn five minutes later was equally weak, then Marius Zaliukas sent a header that comfortably cleared the crossbar from Ian Black’s corner.

Skacel gave cause for growing optimism – and increased volume – among the visiting fans shortly before the interval. The Czech’s solid strike, which took a deflection off the foot of Dean Shiels, had Bell beaten but the ball looped over the target.

“It’s fair to say we shared the first 15-20 minutes of the game,” said Sergio. “After that, we had the ball but we had a lack of freshness.”

A dearth of invention was obvious in the Hearts attack, and Sergio cited his team’s lack of aggression in the final third as key to the visitors’ failure to seriously threaten.

“We had a disappointing and hard game on Wednesday [in a 4-0 home defeat to Celtic] and today the pitch was bad,” added Sergio. “At least we picked up a point. It’s no more than deserved because we were the only team on the pitch. I thought we deserved much more than one point.”

Conversely, home boss Shiels claimed to be “really disappointed” with the result, perhaps largely due to the lateness of the Hearts equaliser, but admitted his side failed to cause much trouble to opposing goalkeeper MacDonald and a generally underworked Hearts defence. “I thought the game wasn’t going anywhere, with possession for both teams and no real goalmouth action,” said Shiels.

Hearts goalkeeper MacDonald sprung into action with an uncharacteristic nervousness early in the second half. The goalkeeper, who has been drafted in as first choice for the Jambos since Marian Kello fell out with the club’s hierarchy over his future at the club, flapped at an effort on goal by ex-Hibs midfielder Shiels. MacDonald, who was well-positioned and under the ball as it came towards him, looked odds-on to make a comfortable catch but chose to punch clear. The move can not have inspired confidence amongst his defence.

A second yellow card for Van Tornhout, for a second poor tackle on Hamill on 53 minutes, prompted a keener sense of urgency from both sides. Hearts’ subsequent one-man advantage was barely noticeable as Killie continued to pile forward but they failed to seriously threaten the Hearts goal in doing so.

In a rare break by Hearts, the irrepressible Hamill motored forward from full-back before floating a cross on to the head of Elliott, who sent his header high and wide, but not by a significant margin.

A second fumble by MacDonald was to prove his and Hearts’ undoing 12 minutes from time. Shiels’ corner from the left was headed towards the bottom right-hand corner of the goal by Lewis Toshney and MacDonald should have comfortably caught the effort by the on-loan Celtic defender but meekly allowed the ball to rebound off his gloves and the predatory Heffernan pounced to force the ball over the line. Substitute Ryan McGowan, stationed behind the strike, made a last-ditch attempt to prevent the goal but made his clearance with the ball clearly past the line.

Only around 200 Hearts fans made the trip to Ayrshire but had belied their relatively meagre presence prior to kick-off with a vocal reception for the Killie boss. The Ayrshire club’s fans responded by identifying a pair of scapegoats in maroon, with Hearts’ Hamill and Mehdi Taouil hardly being afforded a warm welcome upon their return to the club they left for Tynecastle last summer.

At a stadium that was for years their home-from-home, the Hearts pair, alongside the industrious Elliott, were among the standouts, but Hamill’s efforts to impress on his old stomping ground were eventually undone by a red card soon after Killie’s opener. The lively right-back earned a second booking for fouling Garry Hay, and the visitors were forced to weather a storm in the closing stages as Killie gamely chased a second goal.

The afternoon appeared destined to end in misery for Hearts. The Jambos looked down and out, but Elliott slung in an inch-perfect assist to set up Suso for a last-ditch leveller. The Irishman’s high ball from the left deep into the Kilmarnock box was met by the Spaniard, who bulleted a powerful effort past Bell to send the Hearts fans behind that goal wild.