Hearts take enormous step towards Europe as Everton's Ellis Simms scores his first goal in Scotland
Should Hearts find themselves playing European football this summer, the afternoon of Saturday January 29 will have influenced the achievement enormously.
Andy Halliday and Ellis Simms scored in a 2-0 win over Motherwell at Tynecastle Park, which increased the gap between the Edinburgh club in third place and their fourth-placed opponents to a considerable ten points.
Simultaneously across the Capital, Hibs were sitting fifth but lost 3-2 to Livingston. They now languish 12 points behind their neighbours entering Tuesday’s Easter Road derby.
It was a perfect and pivotal day for Hearts with 15 league games remaining. Hearts are now in firm control of their own destiny as they chase a spot in the Europa Conference League qualifying rounds, which finishing third guarantees.
A subdued first half against Motherwell gave way to a strong and comprehensive display after the interval. Simms and Boyce linked well in attack, while new signing Toby Sibbick looked commanding and authoritative on his second Tynecastle debut after replacing John Souttar at half-time.
Six changes to the Hearts team, some perhaps with Tuesday’s Edinburgh derby in mind, allowed Halliday, Nathaniel Atkinson, Taylor Moore, Beni Baningime, Gary Mackay-Steven and Simms starting places.
Motherwell named recently-departed Tynecastle winger Jordan Roberts in their side seeking to reduce a seven-point difference between themselves and Hearts. They were backed by a few hundred noisy travelling supporters.
Despite the wind swirling around Gorgie Motherwell passed the ball crisply through the opposition half and played the better football of the first period. Simms’ link-up play as an attacking focal point helped prise open the visiting defence on counter-attacks, which became a useful option for Hearts.
The striker volleyed a 34th-minute attempt over Liam Kelly’s crossbar as maroon shirts gradually pressed forward. Their advances earned the game’s opening goal on 37 minutes, Liam Boyce stealing possession before Cammy Devlin’s square pass was confidently driven into the net by Halliday.
Motherwell should have equalised in first-half stoppage time when the unmarked Kevin van Veen headed Roberts’ pinpoint left-sided cross just wide of target. Hearts’ defence had looked vulnerable several times and it was no great surprise seeing new signing Toby Sibbick introduced for the restart.
Chances appeared as soon as they asserted themselves. Gary Mackay-Steven shot at Kelly and the goalkeeper then blocked with his legs to thwart Halliday at the back post.
Having been instrumental in the first goal, Devlin orchestrated the second. He dispossessed Motherwell substitute Sean Goss inside his own half and charged forward 50 yards. A pass to the right found Boyce for a low delivery across goal which Simms converted from close range.
It was the kind of sweeping move supporters adore and gave Hearts total command of this match. Boyce could have claimed a third but dribbled past Kelly and the subsequent ball towards the six-yard area found substitute Ben Woodburn offside.
Craig Gordon was called upon for a late save to deny Motherwell substitute Justin Amaluzor before the final whistle ended a thoroughly satisfying day for everyone in Gorgie.
Hearts (3-4-2-1): Gordon; Moore, Souttar (Sibbick 46), Kingsley; Atkinson, Devlin (Haring 60), Baningime, Halliday (Cochrane 87); Boyce (McKay 77), Mackay-Steven (Woodburn 60); Simms.
Motherwell (4-3-3): Kelly; O’Donnell, Solholm, Carroll, McGinley; Slattery, Maguire (Goss 33 (Amaluzor 81)), Shaw; Roberts (Shields 71), Van Veen, Tierney.
Referee: Craig Napier.