Hearts became the first team outwith the Old Firm to qualify for the Champions League as they sealed second-place for the first time in 14 years as Paul Hartley’s second-half penalty settled the nerves at a tense Tynecastle.
The Jambos had the luxury of travelling to Ibrox on the final day with the result against Alex McLeish’s third-placed side rendered meaningless.
Owner Vladimir Romanov, who had declared Hearts would lift the Champions League within ten years, left it for his son, Roman, to set his sights on European success. He said: “The fans deserve it because it has been long awaited. Our goal was to achieve certain things and we are moving in the right direction. We will now sit down with the staff to listen to what positions we have weaknesses in and where we need to improve to compete in Europe.”
It had been the first time that Hearts had kept the same line-up for two games in a row since the New Year period. And an Aberdeen side with Richie Byrne in for Gary Dempsey were immediately under pressure as they sought to extend their own seven-game unbeaten run and qualify for the UEFA Cup.
Hearts’ interim manager Valdas Ivanauskas was serving the first game of a two-match touchline ban and he cut a motionless figure in the stand during a first half in which the home side struggled to create chances. They dominated possession, but it was a scrappy game and the frustration of the home fans increased as the first half wore on.
Aberdeen lost striker Steve Lovell to injury, with Darren Mackie coming on as his replacement after 32 minutes.
Rudi Skacel came within inches of opening the scoring eight minutes from the interval when he met a fine Roman Bednar cross at the back post, his left-foot volley driven across goal and past the post.
Skacel and Bednar both had good efforts from long range, but Aberdeen gave Hearts a fright shortly after the break.
Byrne’s cross found Barry Nicholson 12 yards out, but goalkeeper Craig Gordon saved the midfielder’s header.
It was obvious Hearts needed an early second-half goal to settle rising anxiety and the breakthrough came nine minutes after the interval when Zander Diamond handled a Skacel corner in the Aberdeen box. Skacel’s corner from the right appeared to be flicked on past flailing goalkeeper Jamie Langfield by Bednar, leaving Diamond with little option but to punch the ball clear. Referee Stuart Dougal decided to only show a yellow card as he thought the ball was not heading for the net, but Hartley made Aberdeen pay the penalty from the spot.
Substitute Saulius Mikoliunas had a point-blank header brilliantly saved by Langfield as Hearts’ tension visibly eased.
Their job was made easer when former Hearts midfielder Scott Severin was sent off for a bad challenge on Bruno Aguiar.
Hearts: Gordon, Neilson, Fyssas, Pressley, Hartley, Tall, Cesnauskis, Aguiar, Jankauskas, Bednar, Skacel.