It says much about the strength of Hearts at present that Dundee manager Paul Hartley described his team’s performance as “terrific” even though they played second fiddle to their hosts for much of an entertaining showdown at Tynecastle.
The struggling Dens Park side contributed plenty to the match, particularly early in the second half, and, given that they ended up hitting the woodwork four times and missed a couple of golden chances, they could easily have had a few goals to show for their enterprise.
By the same logic, however, Hearts could have had several more than the two they did get through Callum Paterson and substitute Bjorn Johnsen, particularly in the first half, when 11 genuine close calls could be counted. Without ever being scintillating, they had a good grip on proceedings before the break, when Don Cowie and Arnaud Djoum were dictating superbly from midfield. The latter, after a relatively underwhelming start to the campaign, produced his finest performance of the season on Saturday and was his team’s best player overall.
The new Cameroon cap wasn’t the only internationalist with a spring in his step for Hearts on Saturday. Scotland right-back Paterson underlined his value with a typically marauding performance, while burgeoning goalkeeper Jack Hamilton again showed why club and country were right to place their faith in him this season with a couple of excellent saves at crucial points in the second half. The first of those came five minutes after the break when he threw away himself to his left to tip behind a dangerous 20-yard strike from Faissal El Bakhtaoui at a time when Dundee were starting to enjoy their best period of the match.
The visitors, however, were fortunate to still be in it by this point after a first half largely dominated by the hosts. Before the break alone, Conor Sammon missed a one-on-one; Tony Watt, who looks desperately in need of a goal, spurned three golden opportunities from close range; Cowie blazed over from a promising position inside the box; Djoum and Paterson both went close with low strikes from the edge of the box; Paterson had a header saved by Bain; and two crosses from the Scotland right-back almost brought goals, with one inswinger going close to nestling in at the back post and another flashing agonisingly across goal as Sammon, bursting into the six-yard box, somehow failed to knock it over the line.
Dundee’s only notable retorts before the break were a Tom Hateley free kick that clipped the crossbar and a Kostadin Gadzhalov shot that was blocked by John Souttar. The sense of frustration amongst the home support at not being in front at the interval was clear as they feared a repeat of their last home game, when they were held to a goalless draw by Ross County despite controlling most of the match.
“We played really well in the first half but it was a bit like Groundhog Day again with the chances we had,” noted head coach Robbie Neilson. “We’re creating chances but we’re just not taking them at the moment. I thought Scott Bain was fantastic again – the last few keepers that have come here have played really well.”
It was a different story after the break as Dundee, perhaps lifted by Hearts’ wastefulness, began to look the likelier side. In addition to El Bakhtaoui’s shot being saved by Hamilton, they hit the woodwork twice in the opening five minutes of the half through Hateley and Gadzhalov.
At the other end, Jamie Walker was denied by another fine save from Bain, but Hearts, at this point, were creaking and struggling to recover the control they had in the first half.
Neilson had to act and in doing so, in the 57th minute, he incurred the wrath of the home support when he took off Watt and introduced Robbie Muirhead. The boos generally seemed to stem from the fact many felt Sammon should have gone off instead of the former Celtic player.
However, the key point in deciding to remove Watt was that the head coach wanted to change things behind the central striker at that point so Hearts could gain more of a foothold. Watt’s position in support of Sammon was taken by Djoum, Muirhead went wide left and Walker was moved to the right. Despite the jeers, it proved to be a masterstroke, with Muirhead providing some much-needed thrust before setting up the opener, Walker laying on the second goal from wide on the right and Djoum generally operating to more dangerous effect than Watt – lively enough but too often exasperating – had managed in the early part of the second half.
On the fans’ reaction to the substitution, Neilson said: “That’s football. Everyone is here to make a decision on it. I’ve got opinions as well about teams – that’s football. You have to accept it but I’m the one that has to make a decision on it. If I make the decision and we end up getting beat 2-0 then I would have had to take the flak.
“But Muirhead coming on changed the game for us. Before that, there was a period we were really struggling and we couldn’t get a grip of the game. But Muirhead gave us energy and balance because he allowed us to move Walker out to the right, which also made a big difference.”
Prior to Hearts making the breakthrough, Dundee hit the frame for a fourth time when Yordi Teijsse’s shot cannoned off the post. In light of this, the hosts were mightily relieved to go ahead in the 68th minute as Paterson rose to head home a magnificent free-kick delivery from Muirhead wide on the left. How they will miss the right-back when he eventually heads for more illustrious pastures.
Despite falling behind, Dundee continued to be a live threat throughout the second half. However, the introduction of Johnsen in place of Sammon also played a big part in the outcome as the American, who was denied by a brilliant save from Bain in the 83rd minute, eased home nerves when he scored his first goal for the club with a minute left by applying the finishing touch to a lovely build-up involving fellow subsitute Prince Buaben and Walker.
Although the substitutions ultimately proved pivotal in deciding the match, Neilson explained that the starting XI – without the injured pair of Faycal Rherras and Sam Nicholson, incidentally – paved the way for a victory which ensured Hearts remain a point below Aberdeen in third place.
“The majority of teams will come and sit in, you get the first 60,70 minutes and it’s really hard to break them down,” said the head coach. “Conor, Tony, Arnaud and Don do all the hard work at times to tire them out and then you bring the subs on and they steal the glory. The ones before that do all the work.”