New Year will mean new signings at Tynecastle, that much is certain. Keeping pace in the Ladbrokes Premiership’s race for second place may well depend on it. Aberdeen’s 1-0 victory in Gorgie last night ended 2016 in disappointing fashion for Ian Cathro and Hearts.
Jonny Hayes’ 65th-minute winning goal secured three deserved points for the Pittodrie side, who move six clear of Hearts in the league table. The Edinburgh club stay fourth but are eight points behind second-placed Rangers ahead of their derby with Celtic at Ibrox. It is not a situation for great alarm, but equally there are certain to be reinforcements arriving during the January transfer window.
Aberdeen dominated most of this encounter and looked to have an edge on Hearts in every department. Their squad is considerably more experienced and they created several first-half scoring chances. Indeed, it would not have been unfair had they reached the interval leading by two or three goals. Instead it was goalless until Hayes met Niall McGinn’s cross to decide a very keenly-fought encounter.
The hosts certainly missed Callum Paterson’s goal threat. The full-back is facing nine to ten months out with a cruciate ligament injury, so Liam Smith was promoted to right-back by Hearts. Don Cowie also returned in place of the injured Ghanaian midfielder Prince Buaben against an experienced and unchanged Aberdeen side.
Hearts enjoyed a rampant 4-0 win over Kilmarnock on Tuesday evening as Cathro sampled victory for the first time in his fledgling managerial career. This match was a considerably more difficult assignment against another serious challenger for second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
The final fixture of 2016 was always likely to be feisty and competitive with plenty passion on display. This one began at an overwhelming pace in front of a packed Tynecastle crowd, including an away support which sold out their allocation. Scotland coach Gordon Strachan was also in attendance in the directors’ box.
The crackling atmosphere seemed to inspire Aberdeen more than their hosts during the opening exchanges. They attacked regularly down their left flank to target the inexperienced 20-year-old Smith. From one such foray, they won a corner that ought to have produced the opening goal. Niall McGinn’s delivery was met by the unmarked Mark Reynolds for a free header which flew narrowly wide.
Jamie Walker’s 19th-minute free-kick nestled in the arms of the Aberdeen goalkeeper Joe Lewis in what was a brief moment of respite for Hearts. The pace remained relentless but at the expense of genuine quality football. Another attack by the Pittodrie side on 25 minutes saw McGinn evade Smith for a cross to the back post which Kenny McLean won ahead of Igor Rossi. Jack Hamilton was alive, though, and sprung to his left to beat the ball away.
The goalkeeper was called upon again seven minutes later with Aberdeen maintaining their concerted pressure. Graeme Shinnie’s low delivery from the left prompted McGinn and Faycal Rherras to slide in at the back post. The pair appeared to meet the ball together but Hamilton’s legs saved his side.
Next to preserve Hearts’ clean sheet was an upright. Shinnie’s driven effort from 20 yards beat Hamilton and careered back off the keeper’s left post. Rooney couldn’t adjust his feet quickly enough to meet the rebound with any degree of conviction and the ball bounced harmlessly wide. It was, nonetheless, another let-off for those in maroon.
They reached half-time without conceding, which was in all honesty something of an achievement given their below-par first half display. Their opponents looked physically stronger and used quick passes down both flanks before supplying tantalising crosses in behind. Hearts’ use of the ball was questionable, with many aimless deliveries into attacking channels proving fruitless.
Cathro changed tactics during the interval. He moved Krystian Nowak into central defence beside Rossi and John Souttar. Smith and Rherras then became wing-backs in a 3-4-2-1 formation. It altered little as regards the flow of play. Aberdeen remained the dominant force at the start of the second period, roared on by their vociferous support in the Roseburn Stand.
That section of the ground erupted on 65 minutes when Hayes’ emphatic finish gave the visitors a long-awaited breakthrough. This time, the preluding attack came down the right side. McLean fed McGinn for another sweeping cross which Hayes threw himself at for a strong first-time finish with the left foot.
Teenage striker Rory Currie was introduced in place of Djoum as Hearts strove to restore parity. Tellingly, he was sent on ahead of the vastly more experienced Conor Sammon. The problem was, Cathro’s team hadn’t looked creative enough in possession to seriously trouble their guests with scoring chances. Their frustration was epitomised by Rossi, who punched the dugout in anger after being substituted.
Hamilton held McLean’s left-footed effort on the turn but the closing stages saw those in maroon force the issue in the hope of prising an equaliser. Walker collected Johnsen’s cross from the left and skipped past four opponents inside the penalty box before stinging the palms of Lewis.
With centre-back Anthony O’Connor on in place of McGinn, the Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes was content for his players to try and hold their slender advantage for the last few minutes. Tynecastle was fraught with nerves into stoppage-time.
One final scoring chance landed with Cowie six yards out. He got to Johnsen’s cross ball under pressure from Shay Logan, but the midfielder’s header was high. With that, referee Willie Collum’s final whistle sounded the end of 2016. There is now the chance for both teams to recuperate – and perhaps reinforce – during the January transfer window.