Hearts verdict: Jambos' grit and grind coming to the fore in Championship race
Gradually, Hearts are learning the dirty side of life in Scotland’s Championship.
Defeats on the road at Dunfermline and Dundee were notable for the lack of aggression from the Edinburgh side. That necessary quality was there in abundance in this 1-0 victory at Ayr United.
It was Hearts’ third successive away success after wins at Alloa and Raith Rovers, and put them 12 points clear again at the top of the league.
More importantly, it confirmed that they are indeed up for this fight of trying to regain Premiership status. Conditions were truly awful at Somerset Park with swirling winds and freezing rain, but the maroon sleeves were fully rolled up.
None more so than Liam Boyce, whose early second-half penalty settled the match. He took several heavy tackles during the 90 minutes, most notably from Ayr’s Aaron Muirhead just after the hour, but refused to be bullied out of proceedings.
Others showed a similar mindset, including Andy Halliday, Stephen Kingsley and Jamie Walker. United’s competitive edge brought them close on a few occasions but they lacked the required quality to breach the Hearts defence.
Mihai Popescu did try to help them out at times with some erratic passing from defence.
Ayr’s status as a traditional Scottish seaside town was called into question amid the Friday night rain, sleet and chill. Somerset Park, though, looked resplendent in all its nostalgic glory even if the playing surface appeared capable of cutting up.
Hearts handed striker Armand Gnanduillet his first start but their two deadline-day signings, Gervane Kastaneer and Aaron McEneff, were on the substitutes’ bench. Ayr were unchanged after thumping Alloa 4-1 last weekend.
How it all unfolded
The elements dictated this was not an evening for the faint-hearted and it was Hearts playing against a strong wind in the first half.
They appealed for a penalty in the opening minutes when Halliday played in Boyce, who was bundled over by the United left-back Corrie Ndaba inside the area. Referee Steven McLean let play continue, much to the anger of visiting manager Robbie Neilson.
Long balls were employed by both teams at times and the Ayr goalkeeper Viljami Sinisalo had be alive to push Jamie Walker’s 25th-minute corner out from under his crossbar.
Ayr caused problems for Hearts with their pressing game and competed tenaciously for every second ball. In burly striker Andre Wright, they also had a useful target man to hit with the wind behind them.
Neilson had a long conversation with McLean at half-time having been cautioned for touchline dissent.
His team made a pursposeful start to the second period and moved ahead on 47 minutes. When Halliday’s cross struck Jack Baird’s arm, a penalty was awarded which Boyce rammed home with aplomb.
Both new recruits made their Hearts debuts midway through the second period. McEneff in particular buzzed around full of intent in the No.10 role with Kastaneer wide on the right.
After attempts by Popescu and Kastaneer, Ayr claimed for a stoppage-time penalty when substitute Mark McKenzie’s shot hit Kingsley. Play continued and seconds later the final whistle sounded.
Ayr (4-2-3-1): Sinisalo; Miller (McKenzie 85), Baird, Muirhead, Ndaba; Murdoch, Chalmers (McGavin 78); McCowan, Smith, Walsh (Moffat 73); Wright.
Hearts (4-4-2): Gordon; M Smith, Popescu, Halkett, Kingsley; Walker, Halliday, Irving (Naismith 78), Mackay-Steven (Kastaneer 66); Boyce, Gnanduillet (McEneff 66).