DESPITE missing two penalties, Hearts earned three vital points in their quest to reach the Europa League qualifying rounds by beating Kilmarnock.
Dundee United’s win at Ross County and St Johnstone’s draw with Aberdeen leaves the Edinburgh club 11 points clear in third place with games in hand. Jamie Walker scored the decisive goal after just seven minutes - netting a rebound after his penalty was saved by the outstanding Jamie MacDonald in Kilmarnock’s goal. Nigerian forward Abiola Dauda should have secured victory in the second half with another penalty but again MacDonald touched his effort on to the post. Defeat was harsh on the former Hearts keeper, who was in defiant form all day and didn’t deserve to lose after two penalty saves.
The hosts were simply delighted to see out an arduous second half, during which they came under severe pressure. Their first-half display was much improved but the laboured after the break and, on another day, could easily have conceded an equaliser and dropped two points. As it was, they showed enough resolve to finish the job and take a huge step towards Europe.
With a team containing five changes from last week’s defeat at Tannadice, Hearts wanted a response after two successive defeats. Their management team of Robbie Neilson and Stevie Crawford just signed new contracts, but they faced the new Kilmarnock manager Lee Clark. He was seeking a first victory since arriving in Ayrshire.
There was a minute’s applause pre-match in memory of former Hearts and Kilmarnock Jim McFadzean, who sadly passed away recently. Then came a bolshy opening by the visitors. Greg Kiltie’s cross in the opening 60 seconds was miscontrolled by Tope Obadeyi and fell perfectly for the onrushing Craig Slater. He managed to lash the ball wide of target from 16 yards and a glorious opportunity was wasted.
Hearts ensured Kilmarnock rued that miss within minutes. Alim Ozturk’s long ball found Prince Buaben on a run into the penalty area, he was taken down by Stuart Findlay and referee Don Robertson pointed to the penalty spot. Walker’s initial spot-kick was pushed on to the post by MacDonald. However, the winger’s instinctive second attempt looped up and over the goalkeeper into the net.
Clark’s team had plenty attacking intent about them and tested Neil Alexander in the Hearts goal on a couple of occasions. Conrad Balatoni’s flicked header was cleared off the goal line by Callum Paterson before a swift break by the hosts ended with MacDonald parrying Walker’s drive. Kilmarnock then made a change to introduce recent signing Julien Faubert - formerly of Real Madrid and West Ham United - into midfield in place of Mark O’Hara.
MacDonald stopped Ozturk’s 25-yard free-kick just prior to half-time and then parried Sam Nicholson’s attempt from an acute angle. In an open game which was frequently end-to-end, Hearts had done enough to be ahead at the interval but required a second goal to cement their advantage. They also had to be wary of Obadeyi’s pace and strength on the run as the winger was giving Paterson a difficult afternoon defensively.
Nicholson’s header from Paterson’s right-sided cross early in the second period looked netbound but careered off the inside of the back post. Obadeyi again demonstrated his physique to hold Paterson off and aim a shot at goal which landed in the side netting. The visitors were enjoying their best spell and had Hearts pressed inside their own half, although an equaliser remained elusive.
As tension grew, play became increasingly scrappy. Neilson had introduced Don Cowie and Juanma but was then forced into a third change when Paterson injured his shoulder. His place was taken by Blazej Augustyn for the closing stages. When a second penalty was awarded for handball against Josh Magennis, it should have been game over with nine minutes remaining. Dauda stepped up this time but again MacDonald got down low to the ball to turn it on to his post. He then produced impressive reactions to repel Nicholson’s follow-up shot.
Hearts had to show plenty resolve to hold on to their slender lead. Ozturk blocked Obadeyi’s shot after a ricochet inside the penalty area and several crosses had to be headed clear as the 90th minute approached. Five minutes of stoppage-time didn’t help the nerves of the Tynecastle natives, either. Juanma sprinted clear in behind the Kilmarnock defence on a breakaway but didn’t have the conviction to score and settle the match. It ended 1-0 - securing three potentially crucial points for the Edinburgh club.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander; Paterson, Ozturk, Souttar, Rossi; Walker, Buaben, Djoum, Nicholson; Reilly, Dauda.
62: Cowie for Buaben
68: Juanma for Reilly
75: Augustyn for Paterson
Unused subs: Hamilton, Pallardo, Oshaniwa, Zanatta.
Kilmarnock (4-2-3-1): MacDonald; Hodson, Balatoni, Findlay, McHattie; Dicker, Slater; O’Hara, Kiltie, Obadeyi; Magennis.
29: Faubert for O’Hara
64: Boyd for Slater
Unused subs: Brennen, Higginbotham, Ashcroft, Carrick, Frizzell.
Referee: Don Robertson.