Barry Anderson's verdict: Armand Gnanduillet and Jamie Walker proving their worth as Hearts beat Ayr United
For all this was another grim watch for a long period, patience paid off in the end for Hearts. They are now 15 points clear atop the Championship table with seven games left.
Armand Gnanduillet’s 72nd-minute header again proved his worth as he claimed a fourth goal in seven appearances since joining the Edinburgh club. The Frenchman is developing into a more and more influential figure with each passing week.
Jamie Walker climbed off the substitutes’ bench to add a second on 85 minutes and underline his own importance to the cause. It was his seventh goal of the campaign. Both players showed the kind of quality Hearts will require in the Premiership.
Without being outstanding, Gnanduillet caused problems for a well-organised Ayr United side under the command of new manager David Hopkin for the first time.
Hopkin clearly did his homework and realised Hearts had struggled several times this season against teams using a low block and tenacious energy.
His team sat deep and tried to attack on the break, which for much of the afternoon stifled the hosts at Tynecastle Park. Gnanduillet’s intervention came at a vital time as nerves increased and tension grew inside the ground. One could only imagine the atmosphere had fans been present.
Walker’s strike made sure of the points ahead of next week’s visit to Arbroath. One by one, the games are being ticked off.
Hearts named the same team following last week’s 2-1 win against Dundee, and Hopkin chose not to alter Ayr’s line-up from Tuesday’s 0-0 draw at Raith Rovers.
The visitors looked the more dangerous side in the opening 15 minutes with several crosses into the home penalty area. They mainly sat back and played on the counter-attack but also won loose balls in midfield by reacting quickest.
Hearts controlled possession without threatening until the 22nd minute. Andy Halliday arrived at pace to strike Aaron McEneff’s cross first time, which Ayr goalkeeper Viljami Sinisalo blocked. Then Halliday, Michael Smith and Gnanduillet appeared to get in each other’s way trying to score the rebound.
Sinisalo saved again from Gnanduillet on the half-hour mark following Andy Irving’s lofted pass in behind the Ayr defence. The same pattern of play continued into the second half, with Hearts growing more frustrated.
They had several shots blocked before fashioning a clear chance on 64 minutes. Smith’s clever through ball found Gnanduillet for a touch and shot but Sinisalo got down low with an outstretched right hand.
Walker sent a gilt-edged opportunity over the crossbar minutes later, failing to convert after a shot was blocked despite the goal gaping.
Eventually the breakthrough came. When Irving swung in a vicious left-footed free-kick from the right flank, Gnanduillet rose for a powerful header which Sinisalo got a hand to but could not stop.
The goal brought some relief with Hearts beginning to look restless at that stage. Walker’s second was an equally-emphatic finish.
A slight ricochet meant substitute Gervane Kastaneer’s header cushioned the ball backwards for Walker to thump high into the net and secure another important win.
Hearts (4-3-1-2): Gordon; M Smith, Popescu, Halkett, Kingsley; McEneff (Walker 66), Irving, Halliday; Mackay-Steven (Kastaneer 66); Gnanduillet (White 84), Boyce.
Ayr United (4-1-4-1): Sinisalo; Houston, Baird, Ndaba, Reading; Muirhead; McCowan, Murdoch, Smith (McKenzie 90), Walsh (Chalmers 59); Moffat (Zanatta 73).