Winning is all that matters in March, particularly when you crave European qualification. So, not a single individual on the Hearts bus pulling out of Dens Park on Saturday evening cared that this was a turgid and scrappy affair.
Sean Clare’s prodded finish after 13 minutes was an old-fashioned toe-poke by the midfielder’s own admission. It was sufficient to settle a game that will not live long in anyone’s memory. What will endure, at least for the next few weeks, is the fact Hearts prised three points and didn’t concede a goal for the second time this season away to Dundee.
Conditions weren’t conducive to silky football due to swirling wind and rain. No-one from Edinburgh gave the proverbial toss come the final whistle. After four games without victory, they were on Tayside to win by whatever method necessary.
Clare provided the decisive moment. During the early stages, he flicked Arnaud Djoum’s cross from the left on towards Uche Ikpeazu, who started alongside David Vanecek in attack. With defenders Darren O’Dea and Nathan Ralph in attendance, a scramble for possession ensued around six yards out. The ball eventually broke free and Clare settled the issue by prodding it into the net beyond the Dundee goalkeeper Seny Dieng.
Hearts attacked when opportunities arose but also came under increasing pressure as the afternoon progressed. Whenever Dundee threatened, the visiting goalkeeper Bobby Zlamal sprung into action. He touched Kenny Miller’s header away and saved a long-range attempt from James Horsfield seconds later to preserve a clean sheet.
Clare has taken time to find top form after joining Hearts in September still recovering from ankle surgery. The Englishman now feels he is approaching his peak. “I’m very close. I just need to add a few more goals and be more consistent in that sense,” he said. “It’s been difficult with injuries in the team, I’ve had to move around as have other players. We were consistent in battling on Saturday, in winning balls, and that helps everyone.”
Manager Craig Levein commented that Clare might not reach his absolute optimum until next season. “I want my best to come today but he could be right, to be fair,” said the player. “I’ve not had a proper pre-season and there are still little niggles here and there. I definitely think I’m close. If I can get to a really good level this season then I can kick on after a good pre-season. Hopefully I can show even more.”
On the quality of Saturday’s match, Levein stressed winning was the top priority. “I don’t care,” said the manager. “The wind was howling before the match, it was rainy, then sunny, then freezing cold. The pitch was dry but a bit bouncy so it was a game where we had to overcome those problems.
“I thought we did that quite well. We played in the right areas of the field and with an intent to get forward and put their defence under pressure. Uche did that really well. We got the goal which maybe slightly edged the game. It was never going to be a classic but this gives us the belief to kick on from here. It pleased me that we didn’t play particularly well and we won.”
The result brought Hearts level with fourth-placed Kilmarnock, who play St Mirren tonight, and closed the gap on Aberdeen in third. With a top-six place appearing safe, those at Tynecastle are looking above.
“We’re not looking for the top six,” insisted Clare. “We’re looking to be in a good position before the split. After the split, we want to give ourselves the best opportunity of getting into Europe. We’re trying to look ahead of ourselves, not behind. If we keep putting in resilient performances like Saturday with a bit more quality then we will fly up the table.”
Tomorrow’s Scottish Cup quarter-final replay against Partick Thistle offers another potential avenue into this summer’s Europa League qualifying rounds. “In a sense, it is a two-pronged attack on Europe,” added Clare. “We have to focus on winning games whether it’s the league or Scottish Cup. We have a good opportunity to get into Europe but it’s all down to us. We aren’t hoping for people to drop points, we just want to pick up points. I think we’ve got a good chance.
“We dominated Partick at Firhill [in the first game] but didn’t put the chances away. We need to do that at home tomorrow. We have a great support and if we get on top of them it will be very difficult for them. We have a good chance of getting to the final and anything can happen in the final.”