Hearts verdict: Fans protest as players test their patience in historic win for Queen of the South
As a some Hearts fans staged protests outside Tynecastle Park, inside the team further tested their public’s patience with defeat against Queen of the South.
The Dumfries side recorded their first win in Gorgie since October 1963 with a 3-2 victory which merely compounds Hearts’ misery after Tuesday’s Scottish Cup loss at Highland League Brora Rangers.
Recognising frustrations were building, owner Ann Budge asked supporters to stay away from Tynecastle with a statement on the club website on Thursday. She cited Covid 19 regulations which forbid public gatherings, but a small number ignored the request to congregate on McLeod Street’s Foundation Plaza.
Banners fluttered in the wind as stickers on lamposts demanded Budge’s removal and that of manager Robbie Neilson. Even former manager Craig Levein didn’t escape criticism. Ironically, he was inside working as a pundit for BBC Radio Scotland.
Neilson is attempting to eradicate a malaise which took hold in Gorgie long before he returned last summer. As difficult as this week must have been, he hasn’t shirked a press conference or lost his cool at any point.
Shouldering the flak seems to be something he is determined to do, perhaps in an effort to shield his players. Whether they deserve such protection is another argument altogether.
They did themselves no favours in this fixture with some brutal individual mistakes, although Queen of the South deserve credit for their historic success.
Fans’ absence was actually a blessing for Hearts in the wake of Tuesday night’s cup exit. Had they been inside Tynecastle, the atmosphere would have been poisonous for Neilson and his players.
There is no escaping the fallout from defeat to a Highland League team and the anger remains prevalent. Neilson’s programme notes reiterated the belief that supporters deserve an apology. What they really want is a vast turnaround in their club’s fortunes.
Last summer’s enforced relegation still hurts but on the field performances have too frequently been bland and timid in recent years. That must change if Hearts are to make it back to the Premiership and have any impact at that level next season.
The home players wore Big Hearts logos on their kit against Queen of the South to publicise the club’s charity wing, which does outstanding work in and around the Edinburgh community.
The team had been overly charitable themselves on too many occasions this term. That theme continued when they gifted Queens the opening goal inside two minutes.
How it all unfolded
The reinstated Mihai Popescu played a careless ball out of defence which Stephen Dobbie intercepted. His pass sent Connor Shields through for a ruthless first-time finish.
Rhys Breen should have made it 2-0 from Rhys McCabe’s free-kick, but a poor connection sent the ball into the empty Roseburn Stand.
Visiting goalkeeper Rohan Ferguson pushed away a chest-and-volley effort from Hearts midfielder Andy Halliday on 17 minutes, although Shields produced an exquisite second for the visitors moments later.
He beat the offside trap to sprint on to Niyah Joseph’s through ball down the left. As Ross Stewart emerged, he lofted a delightful finish over the goalkeeper into the net.
Hearts looked stunned as they contemplated dealing with a two-goal deficit. Queens were playing them like a harp, camped in with a 5-3-2 system and hitting on the break. They also displayed more aggression on and off the ball as the half-hour mark approached.
Popescu brought the hosts back into this match on 34 minutes by glancing home Andy Halliday’s corner. That redeemed the Romanian slightly after his mistake at the first goal. It also initiated a period of more Hearts control as they chased an equaliser before the interval.
The James track “Born of Frustration” appropriately played through the stadium’s PA system during the break. The next 45 minutes couldn’t be much more exasperating for those in maroon, surely.
Northern Ireland striker Liam Boyce had been Hearts’ most useful player in the first period and he might have scored on the hour mark. After some skillful turning and twisting on the edge of the Queens penalty area, he dispatched a netbound shot which was blocked by Ayo Obileye.
It was maroon shirts commanding possession of the ball and playing mostly in the opposition half. Aidy White saw an effort blocked and another cleared off the goal line as substitutes Jamie Walker and Euan Henderson arrived for the inevitable late cavalry charge.
It was Henderson who provided the equaliser. He scampered past the Queens left-back James Maxwell and delivered a low cross which Boyce left for Armand Gnanduillet to slot home.
In the technical area, the relief was difficult to miss as Neilson roared with joy alongside coaches Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest. Yet it was short-lived.
With eight minutes remaining, Shields sealed an outstanding personal disaply. His high cross from the left was inadvertently turned past Stewart by the outstretched leg of Andy Irving.
If ever there was a goal to sum up Hearts’ current predicament, it was this one. Irving could only lie on the turf in disbelief as Queen of the South celebrated.
As if to compound the hosts’ misery, Gnanduillet headed into the net in stoppage-time only to see assistant referee Alan Mulvanny’s flag raised. He decided that the ball left the field before Walker crossed to the Frenchman.
Hearts could only lament yet another sub-standard result as Queens players jumped around with elation at full-time.
The Edinburgh club remain 13 points clear at the top of the Championship with five games left, but further error-strewen performances like this won’t secure the title.
Hearts (4-4-2): Stewart; Halkett, Popescu, Berra, White; McEneff (Henderson 70), Halliday, Irving, Mackay-Steven (Walker 63); Gnanduillet, Boyce.
Queen of the South (5-3-2): Ferguson; Gibson, Obileye, Buchanan, Breen, Maxwell; Dickson, McCabe, Joseph; Dobbie (Mebude 77), Shields (East 90).