Yesterday’s draw with Dundee offered a perfect snapshot of why Hearts will not be spending the business end of this season in the race for a Europa League berth.
While a managerial change, high player turnover and stadium issues can all be deemed mitigating factors for this underwhelming campaign, ultimately the Tynecastle side have been undermined by a combination of too many draws, not enough goals and an inability to impose themselves on inferior opposition away from home.
The stalemate at Dens Park, after Ross Callachan’s early opener was cancelled out by Sofien Moussa, counted as Hearts’ 13th draw in 32 league matches, meaning 40 per cent of their matches have ended all square. Although they are strong enough defensively to pick up points even when not playing well, a lack of goals and victories, particularly away from home, against sides they would ordinarily expect to defeat has proved damaging. Dundee had lost six of their previous seven matches yet Hearts were unable to capitalise on any vulnerability in their ranks after scoring a brilliant team goal after just two minutes. Where the likes of Rangers, Aberdeen and Hibs would ordinarily be expected to turn the screw in such circumstances, Hearts were unable to kick on and put their struggling hosts to the sword. They generally lacked spark, swagger and potency as Dundee - limited but fired up - roared back into the match and threatened to nick a winner in the second half. It was similar to the last time Hearts visited one of the league’s relegation-threatened teams, when they took the lead against bottom-of-the-table Ross County in February and ended up clinging on for a point. Although they had a couple of good chances to double their lead yesterday before Moussa’s 28th-minute equaliser, it was notable that they barely looked like scoring thereafter. Fourteen goals in 16 away matches paints a picture of a team unable to assert themselves on the road. They have now won only one of their last ten away games in all competitions, a scenario which has played a big part in their season fizzling out by early April. With one game to go before the split, they are still not mathematically assured of a top-six place, albeit Motherwell, six points and eight goals worse off with two to play, are in need of a minor miracle to overhaul them.
Nonetheless, the situation is infuriating for many Hearts supporters, who expect better from one of the more expensively-assembled squads in the division. Yesterday’s starting line-up featured six established internationalists (Aaron Hughes, Christophe Berra, Don Cowie, Kyle Lafferty, Joaquim Adao and Steven Naismith), one new cap (Marcus Godinho) and two players deemed likely to make their Scotland debuts in the near future (Jon McLaughlin and John Souttar). By the end of proceedings, the frustration from the 700 travelling supporters was audible. The only consolation for those who trooped out of Dens Park’s away end in deflated mood is that Craig Levein has made it clear in recent weeks that he is well aware wholesale improvement is required in time for next season.
The galling thing for Hearts supporters is that there have been glimpses of what this group of players are capable of, albeit primarily in home games against Dundee, Celtic, St Johnstone and Partick Thistle. The opening moments of yesterday’s match offered another indicator of their potential when they passed the ball confidently and purposefully around the pitch in a sustained and patient move which ended with Callachan receiving a crisp pass from Marcus Godinho inside the box, stepping away from Josh Meekings and firing a lovely finish beyond Elliott Parish from 15 yards out. Callachan, who had been widely pilloried and dropped for the two subsequent matches following his costly error against Motherwell in the Scottish Cup four weeks previously, ran euphorically to the away support, punching the air in delight after marking his return to the starting line-up - in place of the injured Michael Smith - in such emphatic fashion.
This was as good as it would get for Hearts, though. Dundee almost equalised two minutes later when on-loan Hibs striker Simon Murray was put clean through by Glen Kamara after he nicked possession from Adao, but McLaughlin made an excellent save. Murray then blazed wide from the edge of the box as the hosts began to find their way back into the match.
Hearts had a chance to double their lead in the 14th minute when Cowie saw an angled effort tipped away by Parish after he had played a one-two with Naismith from a short corner. Hearts felt aggrieved shortly afterwards when Lafferty was yellow-carded after being deemed by card-happy referee Kevin Clancy to have dived even though he appeared to have been bundled over under a challenge from Steven Caulker.
The Northern Irishman was left frustrated again in the 28th minute when he saw an effort blocked by Parish from 12 yards out after good work on the right by Godinho and Naismith to set him up. It was to prove a pivotal moment as Dundee went straight up the park and equalised when Moussa bundled home Roarie Deacon’s cross from the right. Chances were scarce after the break, but the hosts went closest to winning it on the hour when Murray saw a header blocked on the line by Naismith. Hearts finished the game with three teenagers after introducing Lewis Moore, Euan Henderson and Harry Cochrane in place of Danny Amankwaa, Callachan and Adao, who took a head knock, but the visitors never looked like finding a winner. Those Hearts fans who jeered their team from the pitch can at least take some consolation from the likelihood that they will face no more of this all-too-familiar away-day drudgery against bottom-six sides this season.