Dave McPherson held Hearts’ defensive line together at Rugby Park.
That the Tynecastle side are now preparing for a Tennent’s Scottish Cup quarter-final tie against St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park is due in no small part to the work and experience of McPherson who prevented Kilmarnock from enjoying too much space deep inside Hearts’ territory and also encouraged those around him, especially Paul Ritchie, the scorer of Hearts’ first goal nine minutes into the second half.
“I wouldn’t like to start making predictions about him, but he has a chance,” McPherson said of 20-year-old Ritchie. “He shows a maturity beyond his age.”
It was typical of McPherson to be willing to deflect praise towards others because he always looks embarrassed, almost awkward when microphones and cameras are pointed his way, but if he continues to drive Hearts then he may have to get used to the attention again.
A combination of aches and pains coming from his lower back and pelvic region kept McPherson away from the action for two months and he returned only recently, taking little time to settle back in, which has been a relief to Hearts.
Their Italian defender Pasquale Bruno, who has also been used in midfield, is suspended, but he wasn’t missed much because of McPherson’s presence, which was assured and powerful. Also, the truth is the most influential of Jim Jefferies’ foreign imports happens to be the keeper, Gilles Rousset, who can be an inspiration to the Hearts players in front of him.
In fact, the form of the keepers also helped make the difference between Kilmarnock and Hearts in a rousing cup tie which held the attention of the 15,173 crowd throughout.
“I think it is fair to say that of the foreign players Gilles has made the biggest difference,” McPherson said. “He has already saved us on so many occasions and, after Andy Goram, I would say Gilles is one of the best in the country.”
Jefferies added: “Our keeper is the find of the season. He is an inspiration at times.”
By way of stark contrast, Kilmarnock’s players are unlikely to be united in praise of their keeper, Dragoje Lekovic, who seemed unsure of himself especially when called upon to intercept cross balls.
While Hearts’ defenders could be relaxed in their work knowing Rousset was on form, the opposite was the case with Kilmarnock’s back division, but they did well enough none the less.
Indeed, when the the fourth-round tie is analysed it can be seen that Kilmarnock were unfortunate not to have earned at least a second chance. They had a fair degree of possession and for long spells seemed to be coping well with the impish threat of John Colquhoun and Alan Lawrence, although the former caused more trouble the longer the game progressed.
As expected, Kilmarnock proved stubborn, and even after they had fallen behind to Ritchie’s goal, they continued to seek ways through to Rousset.
Their equaliser in 67 minutes was the result of their determination.
Ally Mitchell’s corner from the left wasn’t cleared properly and after a frenzied struggle within a group of players, the ball dropped in front of Derek Anderson.
“Suddenly, the ball was there and I just reacted instinctively,” the defender said.
His shot hit off a Hearts defender, the ball flew into he roof of the net, and Anderson was swamped by team-mates.
However, he was a man alone in his misery 10 minutes from time after Neil Berry’s shot deflected off his body and deceived Lekovic.
“I turned around and saw our keeper was committed,” Anderson said. “I was willing him to get to the ball, but when it went into the net I wanted to be somewhere else.”
While Anderson was sinking slowly into his depression, the jubilation among the Tynecastle side’s backroom staff seemed almost cruel by comparison.
Afterwards, it was possible to detect a growing sense of purpose about Hearts.
They have come close to glory in the past only to stumble on the threshold, but Jefferies has imbued the club with a sense of belief unknown around Gorgie for many years.
“The Hearts of the past might have folded after Kilmarnock had equalised and were pressing forward,” Jefferies said.
“However, when we went ahead for the second time it never looked as though we would be pulled back.
“A home tie would have been a nice reward, but having beaten two Premier Division sides in the cup already we don’t have to be afraid of playing against anyone, anywhere. St Johnstone at their place will be tough, but we have a good chance now.”
Hearts: Rousset, Berry, Ritchie, McPherson, Mackay, Millar (McManus 68), Johnston (Robertson 71), Colquhoun, Lawrence, Fulton, Pointon. Subs not used: Nelson
Kilmarnock: Lekovic, MacPherson, Black, Reilly, Montgomerie, Anderson, Mitchell, Henry, Wright, Brown, Holt (McKee 61). Subs not used: Meldrum, Connor
Referee: Willie Young