LYING grounded with hands over his face inside the Pittodrie six-yard box, Jordan McGhee knew.
He didn’t need to check if referee Craig Thomson was awarding a penalty. Everyone inside the ground saw the teenager handle Kenny McLean’s cross. He knew the game was up and that his error had cost Hearts a point.
Mistakes are inevitable with young footballers, although that was no consolation to the 19-year-old lying on the turf. He picked himself up and saw out the remaining few minutes after Adam Rooney converted his penalty gift to win the game for Aberdeen. Understandably, McGhee left Pittodrie a disconsolate figure. It was a harsh lesson in his fledgling career.
Selected at left-back ahead of Juwon Oshaniwa, this was his chance to cement his place in the back four. The Nigerian has been unconvincing in recent weeks and found himself dropped to the substitutes’ bench by head coach Robbie Neilson for Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off. McGhee’s performances at left-back were convincing while Oshaniwa was injured last month and he therefore merited his place.
With three minutes to play, Hearts looked capable of seeing out a 0-0 draw having shown notable resilience to keep Aberdeen out. Their dogged defending had restricted the home side to few scoring opportunities, with McGhee impressive on the left. They might even have won the game in the second half if chances for Juanma and Callum Paterson had been converted.
Then McGhee rose unchallenged for McLean’s cross and inexplicably stuck out his arm for the ball. He seemed preoccupied by David Goodwillie’s presence at his back but it was the proverbial rush of blood to the head. As he hit the turf, he knew instantly his error had blown the chance of a useful draw in the north east. Thankfully, his team-mates rallied round him rather than lining up to crucify.
One of the themes at Hearts since Neilson took charge is encouraging and protecting youngsters to enhance their development. McGhee’s own strength of character will be supplemented by the supportive environment in the club.
“Of course he will bounce back. I know Jordan very well,” said winger Sam Nicholson, himself just 20. “I’ve known him since I first joined Hearts. He’s mentally one of the strongest boys at his age. He’ll put this to the back of his mind and hopefully the fans do as well.
“He was gutted but every single week somebody is going to make a mistake, no matter the team or player. Messi makes mistakes. Every single one of us have made a mistake this season that’s possibly cost us a goal or could’ve won us the game. I missed a chance against Motherwell [two weeks ago] and could’ve scored it.
“Everyone is really supportive of Jordan and we’re not looking at him in any way. He’s still a great player, he’s 19, he’s played so many games for his age and he’s got a great future. That’s what he needs to look at. He needs to just forget about Saturday. We’re all going to forget about it.
“When you’re a young boy playing at a very good level, that’s what you want to hear from your manager. Go and express yourself, if you make mistakes it doesn’t matter, just get on with it. Aberdeen have a lot of experienced players and I guarantee that, once in their careers, they made mistakes similar to that. Now look at them, they’re all great players. I think Jordan is going to go to a really high level as well.”
Neilson was philosophical about the incident but was in no doubt that McGhee would enjoy the full backing of his colleagues. “He’s a 19-year-old kid. He knows what he’s done. He’s made a mistake on national TV in the biggest game in Scotland, so he doesn’t need me to tell him and he doesn’t need the players to tell him,” said Neilson.
“It’s the players’ job to be supportive of him. All the older players who come here are told before they sign that they have to try and assist the young players and help develop them. The only way to do that is to support Jordan.
“If you don’t want to make mistakes like that, then you don’t play young kids. You don’t put them in. We’re a team that is going to produce young players so we have to accept mistakes. He’s gone in at left full-back in the biggest game in Scotland over the weekend and I thought he was magnificent. He switches off for a second and makes a mistake.
“We could go and get a guy at 30 to go and play left-back but we’re about developing players so we have to accept that they will make mistake. I’m pretty sure that, the next time the ball goes into that back post area, his arm won’t be up.
“We’ve just got to move on and keep developing players. [Callum] Paterson and Nicholson were great, they’re both academy players, plus [Billy] King comes on. That’s what the club is about. We have to accept that, in games like this, the younger players are going to make mistakes.”
Aberdeen dominated the opening half and should have been ahead by the interval. Neil Alexander, the Hearts goalkeeper, saved from the outstanding Jonny Hayes, plus Andrew Considine and McLean. Tackles flew in and Hearts substituted Miguel Pallardo on 31 minutes after the Spaniard had been booked but continued fouling. Aberdeen captain Mark Reynolds was then forced off at the interval with a broken nose following a clash of heads.
Hearts produced a much improved performance in the second half. Nicholson hit the crossbar, Juanma was denied only by the fingertips of Aberdeen goalkeeper Danny Ward, whilst Paterson’s header was blocked on the goal line by Willo Flood. There was no doubt the visitors could have returned to Edinburgh with all three points instead of none. That wasn’t lost on the victorious home manager Derek McInnes, as his team moved seven points clear of third-placed Hearts to cement their position in second spot.
“Juanma has a good chance and Danny Ward makes a good save,” he said. “He was offside for the chance but Danny Ward has still made a brilliant save. Willo has done his job from a set-piece clearing it off the line. Set-plays were always going to be a bit of a concern for us with Hearts’ size and at that stage the game looked far more evenly matched.
“Just when the game was running out we put [David] Goodwillie on to try and get two strikers and make it go our way again. Although young Jordan, who had a good game, has made a mistake I think Goodwillie’s presence has maybe just spooked him a wee bit and it’s a real bonus for us.
“Sometimes tight games are decided by fine margins, sometimes it’s a real bit of quality and sometimes it’s a mistake. This one went for us. Adam has handled the pressure and overall I think we deserved to get the three points. There is a healthy respect between both teams. We recognise that Hearts don’t often not score. They are a good team, I thought we were just slightly better.”