Hearts take walk on the wild side at Partick

Jamie Walker, right, scored the equaliser for Hearts three minutes after giving away a penalty. Picture: SNS
Jamie Walker, right, scored the equaliser for Hearts three minutes after giving away a penalty. Picture: SNS
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A DRAW is always more enjoyable when it comes via a late equaliser, particularly one like Jamie Walker produced at Firhill. Hearts left the west of Glasgow with a cherished point in their fight against relegation courtesy of the winger’s superb strike. It enabled them to reduce their deficit at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership to 11 points.

After being overrun by Partick Thistle in the first 45 minutes, Gary Locke’s inexperienced group rallied after the interval before falling 1-0 behind with just five minutes remaining as Aaron Muirhead lashed home from the penalty spot. Yet the kids under Locke’s tutelage are fast developing the kind of resilience which will be required if they are to survive. Three minutes after conceding the penalty from which Muirhead scored, Walker redeemed himself in ideal fashion. He was seen with his head in his hands after fouling John Baird inside the box, doubtless thinking he had cost his colleagues the game.

However, moments later, he rampaged through the middle of the Thistle defence to fire an unstoppable effort high beyond goalkeeper Scott Fox. With that, the entire Hearts team and substitutes’ bench erupted in joy.

They derived huge satisfaction from beating Hibs last week and, as darkness descended on Glasgow, the notion arrived that Walker’s intervention may prove just as critical to his club’s fate come the end of the season. Hearts might be a tad fortunate to avoid defeat given the number of chances Thistle fashioned during the 90 minutes, but that mattered little to Locke. “It was a good point for us,” he said. “They controlled the first half and we found it difficult. We had a few choice words at half-time and were a different team in the second half. The players showed unbelievable character and showed they’re fighting for the cause.

“Thistle didn’t surprise me because we told the players they pass the ball well. They caused us all sorts of problems in the first half. In the second half we pushed up and stopped them from playing and looked much better. Our players showed they’re willing to battle right to the end. This is a great learning curve for them.”

Locke reserved both criticism and praise for Walker. “Fair play to Jamie, he switched off at a corner and got caught wrong side of his man to give away the penalty. However, he came up with a wonderful strike to get us back in the game. We’re a young team and we’re going
to make mistakes, but it’s important to respond in the right manner. Every point is crucial for us given our position. I’m delighted with the second half and happy to get a point for the fans who gave us tremendous backing again.”

Alan Archibald, the Partick Thistle manager, acclaimed his team’s passing and movement in a game played in a crackling atmosphere. He also admitted being frustrated at conceding an equaliser so soon after his team moved ahead. “You’ve just got to keep the ball for those two minutes, but we couldn’t do that. You’re always worried about that as a manager,” he said.

“I thought we deserved three points – it felt like a defeat at the end. We dominated possession, passed the ball well and were a credit to ourselves. I thought we were great to watch. If we had been more clinical in the final third we’d have been ahead at half-time. It shows you how far we’ve come that we’re disappointed at not beating Hearts. They are a good side and you could see the hunger and desire they have.”

Partick hadn’t lost a league game since January prior to this one, a run of 20 matches without defeat which contributed to their promotion from the old First Division. Hearts arrived with 16 youth academy graduates in their 18-man matchday squad and named Walker at left midfield in place of the injured Ryan Stevenson.

Early exertions from the hosts saw Kris Doolan bulge the rigging on nine minutes, only to be denied by the offside flag. Steven Lawless then drove a 20-yard shot into the arms of the Hearts goalkeeper, Jamie MacDonald, and Doolan, from the same distance, dispatched another attempt wide.

Thistle were dominant in midfield where their crisp interchanges and intelligent rotation play left Hearts doing the chasing. Some of their football was a joy to behold at times. They also had very attack-minded full-backs in Stephen O’Donnell and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, both of whom put several testing deliveries into the Hearts penalty area from wide areas. O’Donnell’s 19th-minute cross landed perfectly on Conrad Balatoni’s head but the former Riccarton youth defender headed wastefully over from six yards despite being unmarked.

As the visitors retreated further, teenage striker Callum Paterson was left increasingly isolated up front. Former Hibs midfielder Sean Welsh’s diagonal ball found Gary Fraser, whose cross was glanced wide by Doolan on the run. Partick appealed for handball when another O’Donnell cross ricocheted off Danny Wilson inside the box. Moments later, Welsh angled a shot over the crossbar, then Doolan was off target 18 yards out in the inside-left channel.

It seemed merely a matter of time until Thistle scored given their concerted pressure. Nonetheless, half-time arrived with the scoreline blank and the Hearts youngsters could take some encouragement from the fact their goal remained intact.

Welsh did not re-appear for the second half due to an injury sustained near the end of the first period. His place was taken by Kallum Higginbotham, but the change did not disrupt Partick’s rhythm. James Craigen scampered through to drag a shot wide on 48 minutes and MacDonald pushed away a flick from Doolan following Craigen’s cross ten minutes later.

The introduction of Billy King as substitute imbued Hearts with more attacking intent. Wilson headed a corner just inches over the crossbar before sending a diving header wide as those from Tynecastle began asserting themselves. Then Thistle sprung forward and substitute Baird’s left-sided cross was headed powerfully goalwards by Craigen, however MacDonald was again in the way.

The goalkeeper’s instinctive reactions denied Baird from a driven shot on the run and, in the 84th minute, he executed the save of the match. Lawless spun on the edge of the penalty area for a vicious left-foot shot which MacDonald pushed away at full stretch low to his left. It looked like a save which would secure a point. For around 60 seconds. A clumsy looking tackle from behind by Walker on Baird following a corner kick saw referee Bobby Madden point instantly to the penalty spot. Muirhead was ruthless with his execution, lashing the ball down the middle beyond MacDonald. At that juncture, it looked like Thistle had secured another three points.

However, Walker responded in perfect fashion with a sumptuous solo goal two minutes from full-time. He gathered the ball and ran directly at the Partick defence before unleashing a stinging shot which sailed high beyond Fox. As expected, the vociferous travelling support erupted and left Maryhill delighted with a dramatic final few minutes and a hard-earned point for their side.