All good things must come to an end, of course. In the fifth minute of stoppage time against Motherwell on Saturday, Curtis Main’s header squirmed over goalkeeper McLaughlin’s line to equalise Hearts substitute David Milinkovic’s 80th-minute opening strike. Main was the first person to score against the Tynecastle side in 830 minutes of football.
Those at home watching television results programmes might have expected the yellow Sky Sports ticker to announce this as breaking news. Hearts conceding has become such a rare event. Outfield players joined McLaughlin in protesting that the ball did not cross the line, but they were acting out of exasperation.
Craig Levein has his defenders so regimented they now take goals as a personal insult. The hurt was exacerbated by the fact those in maroon were denied two first-half penalties and hit the post twice. They could potentially have been out of sight against a disciplined Motherwell side.
Things are not all suddenly doom and gloom around Tynecastle Park, however. Hearts remain undefeated in 12 games heading to Celtic Park tomorrow evening. Demetri Mitchell delivered another outstanding performance at left-back, 17-year-old Andy Irving was composed in midfield and Milinkovic scored off the bench for the second game running. That’s before you factor in an encouraging debut as a substitute for new signing Danny Amankwaa.
Saturday may have felt like a defeat, but still no team has got the better of Levein’s side since November 5 last year. “It’s disappointing to lose a goal so late. It has that feeling as if you have almost lost the game. We just have to pick ourselves up and go again in midweek,” said the veteran Hughes. “We had a few chances and there was a shout for a penalty in the first half, which I haven’t seen.
“Motherwell are well organised. There were difficult conditions and a difficult pitch. It was always going to be a tight game. As I say, it’s just disappointing we couldn’t hang on after getting the goal. The clean-sheet record isn’t something we particularly dwelt on or spoke about during it. It’s something that’s nice to be associated with, but no-one was overly obsessed with it. There are other things we have to concentrate on. It’s done now and we move on.”
It is a mystery where referee Willie Collum plucked five minutes of injury time from. Motherwell certainly used it ruthlessly. They commendably refused to give up hope of earning a point despite losing the opening goal so late in the game.
They forced their way forward and won two free-kicks in quick succession. The second, delivered by Craig Tanner, was headed back across goal by Andrew Rose, Tom Aldred’s shot was deflected and Main headed goalwards for the ball to squirm over the line. Had Collum blown his whistle even 30 seconds earlier, Hearts would have continued with the best clean-sheet streak in European football.
“That maybe just adds to the disappointment a little bit, but we very quickly have to move on and learn from that last five minutes to make sure we see games out,” added Hughes. “We are going to be under pressure in the last five minutes. They were shelling it forward and their centre-back came up the park to give an extra body up front.
“It’s just about trying to keep your head and make the right decisions to not put yourself under any more pressure than would already be the case. It was always going to be a fast and furious five minutes. If they don’t score the goal, we move on and probably don’t speak about it. The fact they did just makes everything feel that bit worse and highlights one or two things.”
Levein bemoaned Collum’s failure to award Hearts two first-half penalties. The first was a clear handball by Motherwell’s Cedric Kipre and the second a blatant foul by Aldred on Ross Callachan. “For the life of me, I don’t know how we didn’t get the two of them,” said the manager.
“I’ve seen both situations again and I asked Willie at half-time. He said their player [Aldred] definitely touched the ball. He didn’t. It’s the most blatant penalty I’ll see all year. The handball is also blatant so I’m disappointed in Willie’s performance.”
Aldred disagreed. “I’ve just been focused on the ball and gone to win it. I felt like I’ve got a nick on the ball. The referee has also said I’ve got the ball and that’s good enough for me,” he stated.
Those issues aside, Callachan struck the post from a cross early on and Mitchell arced a beautiful left-footed shot which careered back off the upright as well. After the interval, Milinkovic emerged from the technical area to good effect. He struck Hearts’ second goal in the 3-0 win at Hamilton last week and found another clinical finish when Motherwell failed to clear a free-kick properly. It looked to be enough for another victory.
“I had the points in my pocket and I was on my way home. Somebody stole them,” smiled Levein. “Set-pieces were the only things going to cause us a problem. We gave away two in the last few minutes and I was hoping we could see it out. The run had to end some time.
“Motherwell didn’t have many chances at all and I can’t remember Jon having much to do. It was a rubbish goal to lose but it’s done. The dressing-room felt like it does when you lose. People were angry. I’m disappointed for the players for the effort they put into the game after two particularly hard matches recently. To be in front going into the fifth minute of injury time and then lose a goal was extremely disappointing.
“We invited the pressure by giving two free-kicks away in the last three minutes. That invited six or seven of their players into our box. They’re lucky if they get two or three players into our box from open play.”