A season of woe for Hearts ended as it began – with a spirited defeated at the hands of Celtic.
The rousing performance they produced in a 2-1 loss at the hands of Brendan Rodgers’ side at a sun-kissed Tynecastle nine months earlier had hinted at a fruitful campaign ahead for a team who had finished third the previous season.
When they rocked up at Celtic Park for their season-ending match, however, their main motivation was to try and mend some damaged pride after a dismal run of results and meek performances since Ian Cathro replaced Robbie Neilson at the start of December and a subsequent bout of ill-fated January transfer business.
Hearts did as well as could reasonably be expected in the circumstances yesterday, standing up to a daunting challenge on a day when most expected them to be lambs to the slaughter. Ultimately their resilience and organisation was breached by second-half goals from Leigh Griffiths and Stuart Armstrong. The damage to their season wasn’t done in losing all four games this season against rampant Celtic, however; it was done by their chronic inability to deal effectively with most of their other opponents in the second half of the season.
Since Cathro took charge, there have been just six wins and 14 defeats in 26 matches in all competitions. The season unravelled particularly spectacularly after the Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Hibs at Easter Road in February, a match which sparked a season-ending run of ten defeats in 14 games.
A fifth-place finish masks the reality that Hearts have been one of the worst-performing sides in the country since the turn of the year. They finish the campaign 12 points behind a St Johnstone side they were nine points above last term and a whopping 30 points below an Aberdeen side they got within six points of a year ago. The regression at Tynecastle is clear and unarguable. A big summer looms as the club bid to get back on an even keel following a couple of years of impressive post-administration progress.
Underlining the level of – largely detrimental – change at Hearts over the course of the season, only two players – Don Cowie and Arnaud Djoum – featured in yesterday’s starting XI who had also started against Celtic on the opening day of the league campaign. There was a surprise debut for teenager Jamie Brandon at right wing-back, while Bjorn Johnsen retained his place despite his bust-up with Ian Cathro at half-time in the 1-0 defeat by St Johnstone on Wednesday. Viktor Noring kept the gloves for the third game running as first-choice goalkeeper was again left on the bench alongside talisman Jamie Walker. Lennard Sowah, Andraz Struna, Angus Beith and Sam Nicholson were all missing from the squad as 16-year-old Euan Henderson was named among the substitutes.
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, eager to complete a historic unbeaten league campaign, took no chances with his team selection and sent out his strongest available team. Adding to the formidable nature of the match was the party atmosphere inside Celtic Park in the lead-up to kick-off as 58,000 home supporters prepared to celebrate their sixth league title in a row as well as the 50th anniversary of their club’s famous European Cup triump.
The Hearts players emerged to a spectacular scene before the match as the Celtic fans held up plastic banners in an impressive show of appreciation to the Lisbon Lions. As he joined his colleagues at the mouth of the tunnel to form a guard of honour for the champions, young Brandon would have noted that he was operating in a vastly different environment to that which he is accustomed in the SPFL development league.
Despite the pre-match fears of their supporters, Hearts, operating with a 4-3-2-1 formation, were organised and competitive for most of the game and ensured Celtic were largely restricted to shots from distance during a low-key first half. In the opening 20 minutes, Griffiths curled a free kick just wide and Kieran Tierney rasped a 30-yard striker over the bar.
Esmael Goncalves had Hearts’ first effort midway through the half when he fired a free kick high over and Armstrong then blazed over from distance at the other end before Callum McGregor tested Noring with a low 20-yarder. Hearts threatened just before the half hour when Alex Tziolis fired a powerful free-kick from the angle of the box inches over Craig Gordon’s crossbar. Celtic enjoyed a short flurry of pressure in the lead-up to half-time but, aside from the assured Noring having to be alert to block a close-range volley from Dedryck Boyata, the champions were unable to get a proper sight of Hearts’ goal.
The breakthrough came in the 50th minute when Griffiths headed in Patrick Roberts’ cross, but Hearts refused stuck manfully to their task. Noring blocked from Scott Brown and then at the other end Johnsen tested Gordon with a low shot from the edge of the box. Celtic put the game beyond doubt in the 75th minute when Armstrong lashed high into the net from eight yards out after Brandon failed to properly clear a Griffiths delivery from the right. It was harsh on the 19-year-old who had otherwise produced an accomplished performance in demanding circumstances.
Hearts enjoyed a late flurry in which substitute Malaury Martin twice went close and Johnsen glanced a header against the inside of the post. Although they finished the campaign with a fourth consecutive defeat, Hearts managed to escape Glasgow’s east end with damage kept to a minimum. The players headed over to applaud the small travelling support at the end – some of them for the final time. A summer rebuild beckons at Tynecastle. In light of this largely dispiriting campaign, those in power must ensure it is spot on.