A sense of frustration and deflation could be felt in the autumnal Gorgie air late on Saturday afternoon as league leaders Hearts lost their 100 per cent record after being expertly nullified by a committed and well-drilled Livingston side.
Boos that greeted the full-time whistle were loud enough to be notable, but represented an instinctive display of disappointment with an underwhelming performance and the unanticipated concession of two points RATHER than any kind of mutiny from a group of supporters who have been treated to a start to the campaign which – Saturday’s setback aside – has defied all expectations.
Although acknowledging that the display and the result were not good enough at home to a newly-promoted opponent, captain John Souttar, mindful of the fact his team were still five points clear at the top of the table, was keen to ensure a degree of perspective was retained in the post-match analysis. “It was a harsh lesson, but we’re still unbeaten so we don’t want to be too negative about it,” he stressed. “We’ve won the first five and started really well, so it’s important we don’t let the heads drop.
“I think everyone can be a wee bit over the top. It was one draw, it’s not the end of the world. Livingston will get points from other teams, which they have done already this season. They’re a good side, they’re compact and hard to break down. We’ve got to stay positive.”
Yesterday’s unexpected defeat for Celtic at Kilmarnock certainly softened the blow for Hearts, as it meant they finished the weekend with their five-point lead still intact, although Saturday’s listless performance served – temporarily, at least – to put tentative talk about their credentials to end 33 years of Old Firm title dominance on hold. “Everyone else was speaking about titles and stuff like that – I don’t think anyone in our dressing room was mentioning that, don’t worry about that,” Souttar said, keen to play down the notion that drawing with one of the form teams in the country should be seen as some kind of bubble-bursting catastrophe.
Even though Livingston had arrived in Gorgie buoyed by a run of three consecutive league wins and were sitting joint second in the table, Hearts – who had won eight in a row in all competitions – were widely expected to prove too strong for Gary Holt’s team. Subconsciously, however, this expectation may have manifested itself in complacency.
From the outset, there was a flatness among the home support which was reflected by a lack of zest on the pitch. High-flying Hearts teams of previous years have been renowned for blowing away less illustrious opponents at Tynecastle with pace, power and high-tempo starts, but on this occasion Livingston were able to settle into the match and knock the hosts out of their stride.
With striker Uche Ikpeazu a notable absentee through injury and a four-man midfield looking lop-sided with Demetri Mitchell starting on the right (before reverting to left-back early in the second half), Hearts’ front six struggled to find any cohesion. It became clear from long before the end that if they were to maintain their perfect start, they would have to scrap it out and win ugly.
They did go closest to winning it, with Jimmy Dunne – Hearts’ best player on the day – heading against the crossbar in the first half, top scorer Steven Naismith seeing a penalty saved by Liam Kelly on the stroke of half-time and Steven MacLean hitting the crossbar in the last minute, but Livingston, who spurned a great second-half chance of their own when Scott Pittman went clean through and was denied by Zdenek Zlamal, were worthy of their point.
Consolation for Hearts could be found in the fact this was their 11th consecutive match without defeat this season, while they also continued their impressive defensive form with a seventh clean sheet in nine matches. Expectations, however, have soared in Gorgie over the past few months to a level where merely being hard to beat is no longer going to satisfy a support who believe they now boast a squad equipped to make its presence felt at the top end of the Premiership.
“It was very frustrating,” said Souttar. “It was probably our poorest performance of the season. We didn’t concede a goal and we had a few chances but it would have been a scrappy, undeserved win if we got it. We were never going to win every game though. There were always going to be days like this in the season, but it’s important that when we have days like this we don’t concede.”