Hearts opened the 2016/17 Ladbrokes Premiership campaign with a narrow defeat by champions Celtic thanks to a debut winner by Scott Sinclair at Tynecastle.
It looked ominous for Hearts after just eight minutes when James Forrest opened the scoring, but the Jambos recovered well and equalised on 35 minutes when Jamie Walker won a penalty and converted it himself.
In an even, high-octane match in which referee John Beaton dished out an incredible 11 yellow cards, Hearts appeared to have earned a share of the spoils until substitute Sinclair – who only hours ago had signed for Celtic from Aston Villa in a £3.5million deal – climbed off the bench to grab victory for Brendan Rodgers’ men.
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson went with a conventional 4-4-2 for the visit of the Premiership champions, with Conor Sammon partnering Tony Watt in attack. With captain Alim Ozturk suspended, midfielder Don Cowie wore the armband, while 19-year-old John Souttar filled in for the Turkish defender at centre-half.
Celtic made two changes from the team that narrowly defeated FC Astana 2-1 on Wednesday night in the Champions League qualifying round. Veteran Ivorian defender Kolo Toure came in for Saidi Janko, while Moussa Dembele replaced the injured Patrick Roberts as Rodgers went with a 4-4-2 system as well.
The match started at a frenzied pace, roared on by a packed Tynecastle. Sammon had the first shot on goal after just two minutes, but he didn’t catch his effort cleanly and it screwed wide of Craig Gordon’s goal.
Hearts keeper Jack Hamilton had a nervy beginning to the match, miscontrolling a passback and then minutes later firing a clearance straight at the onrushing Celtic forward Leigh Griffiths. Fortunately for the Jambos, the ball shot out for a throw-in.
Celtic then took the lead on eight minutes. Callum McGregor was sent clear down the right-hand side after Hearts left-back Faycal Rherras had been caught too far up the pitch and, although Igor Rossi thwarted his run into the box, the ball fell to Forrest and he curled a measured left-footed shot beyond Hamilton and into the corner of the net. Celtic’s Stuart Armstrong did appear to be blocking the keeper’s view from an offside position when the ball was struck, but whether it was enough to seriously interfere with play is debatable.
Sammon then became referee Beaton’s first player into the book as he was cautioned for late tackle on Kolo Toure. Arnaud Djoum then followed him into the book afer bring down Scott Brown on 18 minutes.
Hearts then missed a gilt-edged chance to equalise on 23 minutes. Walker engineered some space down the right and played the ball back to Callum Paterson. His cross took out the whole of the Celtic backline but, with the goal gaping, Watt could only head wide from a few yards out. Then, from the resultant goal-kick, Rossi misjudged the flight of the ball, but Griffiths could only loft it over the bar as he bore down on Hamilton’s goal.
Watt then picked up a booking on 29 minutes for a petulant kick out at Brown after the Celtic captain had hounded him off the ball. The former Hoops striker, although busy enough, was finding it hard to get much change out of the defence.
Hamilton then had to show strong reflexes to keep out Forrest on 34 minutes. The winger’s shot from the edge of the box took a wicked deflection of Rossi and looked to have deceived the young keeper, but he thrust out a hand and clawed it over the bar.
That save proved to be crucial as just a minute later Hearts won a penalty when Kieran Tierney was adjudged to have clipped Walker in the box. Contact appeared minimal, but Walker took it himself and sent Gordon the wrong way before needlessly celebrating in front of the Celtic fans. A yellow card followed, but Walker cared little. The Jambos were back in the match.
Celtic came straight back at them and only a goal-line intervention from Rossi denied a strike from Griffiths after Hamilton had saved bravely at the feet of Dembele. In the ensuing melee, Paterson was lucky to see his diversion of a Griffiths cross skid narrowly over his own bar.
The last action of a power-packed first half came on 44 minutes. Watt, now finding more space around the Celtic box, picked up possession and struck a fierce effort towards goal that Gordon parried away well.
Celtic came out for the second period with purpose and Hamilton had to look lively to block a Griffiths shot before Hearts scrambled the rebound away from the onrushing Dembele on 48 minutes. Rossi then became the fifth Hearts player to go into Beaton’s book – Sammon, Djoum, Watt and Walker already cautioned – with a clever foul to stop Dembele racing away from him. Griffiths’ free-kick, however, was tepid and Hamilton easily collected.
The former Hibs striker was becoming more and more prominent and Rossi did well to block his shot on 54 minutes after a fine cross from Tierney. Then Paterson was the next man to receive a yellow card for hauling down Dembele. Griffiths’ free-kick wasn’t much better than his last, though, and boomed off the wall for a corner that came to nothing.
Rodgers and Neilson then made their first substitutions of the match on 61 minutes, with Sinclair coming on for Armstrong for Celtic and Robbie Muirhead for Hearts, replacing Watt, who put in a good shift on his debut for the Jambos.
Celtic should’ve taken the lead on 66 minutes, but were denied by a fine bit of defending by Souttar. Griffiths cleverly dummied a pass to send Mikael Lustig free on the right-hand side. His cut-back found Dembele the box and it looked for all the world that the Frenchman would find the net until the young Hearts defender courageously hurled his body in front of the net-bound shot.
Hearts created a sight of goal themselves on 72 minutes with a well-worked throw-in routine. Paterson’s long throw found Cowie and his header into the box was millimetres away from giving Muirhead a clear header on goal.
Rodgers, sensing Hearts were becoming more and more prevalent in the game, made a tactical switch, bringing on midfielder Tom Rogic for defender Eoghan O’Connell and switching to a three-man defence.
It did little to stem the immediate tide as a thumping tackle by Djoum sent Sammon clear on goal. However, the striker didn’t have enough pace to scamper clear of Lustig’s attention and, forced wide, his tame shot was easily held by Gordon.
Referee Beaton then made his seventh Hearts booking of the afternoon, carding Cowie for a late challenge on Tierney. Although merited, the caution count of 7-1 in Hearts’ favour did not reflect the amount of niggly fouls Celtic were getting away with, although the Tynecastle faithful did sound their approval when Brown was finally pulled up for dissent.
Hearts felt they should’ve had a penalty on 79 minutes when Muirhead tangled with Toure in the box. An infringement appeared minimal as the Ivorian used his superior strength to move the striker off the ball. In any case, Beaton was unmoved and waved play on.
It turned out to be a pivotal moment in the game, as on 81 minutes Celtic went ahead. Griffiths burst clear on the left and his ball across goal found Sinclair, who stole in front of the Hearts defence to slide the ball past Hamilton and into the corner of the net. The forward celebrated wildly in front of his own fans and was booked for his troubles, while Rodgers rampaged half-way up the touchline in jubilation.
Hearts tried manfully to find an equaliser, but the closest they came was when Cowie – perhaps their best player with a dynamic display in midfield – stung the palms of Gordon with a rasping drive.
Hearts (4-4-2): Hamilton; Paterson, Souttar, Rossi, Rherras; Walker, Cowie, Djoum, Nicholson; Watt (Muirhead 61), Sammon (Buaben 79). Subs not used: Noring, L Smith, Oshaniwa, Paton, Zanatta.
Celtic (4-4-2): Gordon; Lustig, Toure, O’Connell (Rogic 73), Tierney; Forrest, Brown, McGregor, Armstrong (Sinclair 61); Dembele, Griffiths (Janko 84). Subs not used: Fasan, Izaguirre, Johansen, Ciftci.
Referee: J Beaton.
Hearts: Sammon (11), Djoum (18), Watt (29), Walker (36), Rossi (50), Paterson (55), Cowie (75)
Celtic: Gordon (35), Brown (78), Sinclair (82), Dembele (90+1)