Picking the new Hearts head coach was always going to be an onerous task. Saturday made it that bit more taxing.
The job would surely have been Jon Daly’s with victory at Fir Park but a disappointing performance and a 2-1 defeat leaves club owner Ann Budge with a huge decision to make.
Does she stick with Daly, the Under-20 coach who has engineered a response from the first team since taking over temporarily? Beating Kilmarnock and drawing with Rangers put him in the driving seat. The weekend defeat shouldn’t mean he is discounted but it is a blow the Irishman could certainly have done without.
Or does she appoint Steven Pressley, Paul Hartley or perhaps even someone else completely? Both the former Hearts captains have been interviewed and have more managerial experience than Daly, something Budge is known to want. The other option would be to identify a manager already in a job, which would then mean paying his club compensation if he is lured away.
Much of Hearts’ finances are tied up in funding Tynecastle’s new £12million main stand. The remaining three years of Ian Cathro’s contract needs paid up after his sacking, so there may not be much left for a fee to get a new manager. It would cost a six-figure sum to get the likes of Tommy Wright or Alan Archibald, for example, out of their contracts at St Johnstone and Partick Thistle respectively.
So, Budge and Hearts’ director of football Craig Levein have a massive decision which they must get right in order to take their club forward. And they must make it in the next few days to allow things to settle during the international fortnight.
Daly is convinced he has done everything in his power over the last four weeks to get the job. “It’s never nice to get beaten and we’re obviously disappointed,” said Daly in the wake of the loss to Motherwell. “In terms of the job, I don’t know what the club are thinking. I think you saw the effort again on Saturday. I felt we passed the ball a lot better but again the final third lets you down. Decision-making in the final third wins you games.
“You can’t fault the players’ workrate but that’s not enough to win you games. You need to have that quality, and we have more than enough of that in the team. We have good quality on the bench as well. On the day, decision-making let us down in the final third.
“The club have made the statement that they’re going to make a decision this week. So I’d expect a decision on what’s happening with the role one way or the other. Whether it’s myself or someone coming in, it gives a bit more clarity to the situation.”
The galling thing for Daly is that Hearts were 1-0 ahead and looking relatively comfortable for much of Saturday’s first half. Kyle Lafferty’s excellent low drive from 25 yards gave them the lead on the half-hour mark. At that point, it looked like Daly’s job for certain. Motherwell’s recovery was as impressive as it was swift.
Ryan Bowman headed home from Louis Moult’s intelligent headed knockdown with the Hearts defence notably static. Then, after Jamie Walker was dispossessed near the edge of his own penalty area, Richard Tait found Moult for a perfect lofted finish over Hearts goalkeeper Jack Hamilton from outside the box.
The 2419 travelling fans in a crowd of 6568 were mightily impressive but they were rather shellshocked. As Daly rightly stated, Hearts toiled for creativity in the second half to open up Steve Robinson’s well-organised Motherwell back line. They could also have lost another two goals for failing to deal with balls in the air. Christophe Berra cleared Moult’s header off the goal line and another Bowman header was disallowed for offside.
Robinson, the Northern Irishman, has now presided over seven Motherwell wins from nine competitive matches so far this season, an impressive run with one of the Ladbrokes Premiership’s smaller budgets.
Moult is the catalyst for the success. The striker has scored 40 goals in 84 appearances since arriving in Lanarkshire in 2015 from English National League side Wrexham. Robinson will be praying Thursday night’s transfer deadline passes without any bigger clubs bidding for his prized asset.
“When the shot left his foot, I dived and I turned my head and saw it go in the top corner. It was a great finish,” admitted Hamilton when asked about Moult’s goal. “It’s one of the ones you need to hold your hands up and say: ‘Fair play to the striker’.
The goalkeeper retained his place despite Hearts signing the former Burton Albion No.1 Jon McLaughlin on Friday. “I’m happy to fight for my place. It’s always good to have competition, so it means I have to up my game now. Jon is a fantastic goalkeeper so it will be good for me as well,” he added.
The choice of who becomes Hearts’ long-term first-choice keeper will be made by the new head coach. Players are relaxed and comfortable under Daly, which may work in his favour. “It’s not like somebody new has come in and we’re all wondering what’s going to happen. Jon is there, we know what he’s like and he knows what we’re like as players. Whatever happens, the players will take that as it comes,” said Hamilton.
“All the boys are working hard together, as you could probably see. We’re trying to grind out results for Jon, for the players and the fans. They deserve results and that’s what we’re trying to give them. Whatever happens, happens. We’ve just got to go about our job every day but it will be good to see it all done.”