Sam Nicholson: Hearts let Killie off the hook

Conrad Balatoni wheels away to celebrate his equaliser. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Conrad Balatoni wheels away to celebrate his equaliser. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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ALTHOUGH it would be churlish to grudge Kilmarnock the point they earned at Tynecastle on Saturday, Hearts winger Sam Nicholson took the result rather personally.

He blamed himself for not scoring one or more goals to kill off the visitors.

The match didn’t feature many clear chances but those that did arise for the hosts seemed to fall to Nicholson. One spell near the end of the first period, just after Jamie Walker’s penalty put Hearts 1-0 ahead, saw him try three attempts which could easily have resulted in him supping his half-time tea having bagged a hat-trick.

The first shot was blocked, the second saved by Jamie MacDonald and the other arced wide of goal. That second opportunity featured Nicholson’s exquisite back-flick over the head of Kilmarnock’s Mark O’Hara before he turned and unleashed his shot. MacDonald beat away another of his efforts in the second half before Conrad Balatoni’s 79th-minute equaliser.

The visitors’ second-half pressure didn’t exactly leave the Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander out of breath making saves, but it did lead to a precious goal. Centre-back Balatoni, one of five former Hearts players in Kilmarnock’s matchday squad, capitalised on a half-cleared free-kick to drive a clinical low finish beyond Alexander. It was his first goal for the Ayrshire club.

By full-time, Nicholson was almost distraught. “It’s just down to taking chances, myself especially. I could have got a couple but it didn’t go in for us,” he complained. “When we were winning 1-0, I thought we looked quite comfortable. Obviously, you’re never really comfortable at 1-0 and anything like that can happen. When it does, you start looking back to the chances you’ve missed. I’m just as much to blame as anyone for missing chances.

“Jamma [MacDonald] is an outstanding keeper. He’s a great shot-stopper. One of my shots went straight to him but he still managed to make it look good. I don’t know how he’s done it but that’s Jamma for you. He always had a mental block on me in training here. I don’t know if he’s trying to carry that on or not but I’m not happy about it.

Asked if he felt the result amounted to two points dropped, Nicholson replied: “I suppose, but I’m not going to forget that Kilmarnock battled well. They’ve come and ended up getting up a point. We’ve got to look at ourselves and ask how we let that happen. It’s down to missing chances. Like I said, I’ve missed a couple myself so I can’t look at anyone else. It’s just down to getting on the training pitch and working on my finishing. Hopefully I can put it right in the next game.

“The more chances you create, the more likely you are to get a goal. On Saturday, it seemed the more I created, the less chances I had to score. That’s football. You can’t let it get you down, you just need to keep going. Hopefully the team gets enough chances in the next game and we manage to bury them.”

There were several key issues which contributed to the end result in this game. Nicholson was slightly harsh on himself shouldering all the blame. Firstly, MacDonald, on the few occasions he was called upon, performed as reliably as ever in goal. He, Balatoni, Jamie Hamill and Kevin McHattie all started at their former place of work, guided by manager Gary Locke. Their collective motivation to come back to Tynecastle and prove a point shouldn’t be overlooked.

Secondly, Hearts chose to substitute one of their more effective players, Osman Sow, on 74 minutes whilst 1-0 ahead. That reduced their attacking threat. It was the Swede who had won their penalty when he was fouled by Balatoni five minutes from the break. Five minutes after he went off, Balatoni redeemed himself by scoring.

Finally, referee John Beaton’s performance left both camps exasperated. He needlessly stopped play for niggling incidents and issued seven yellow cards and a red in a game which was never dirty. Ironically, he let play run on the one occasion when it should have been halted immediately.

That was in stoppage-time when Hearts substitute Gavin Reilly was almost choked by his own shirt as Kilmarnock’s Steven Smith gripped the forward’s jersey firmly as he tried to run clear. Reilly was allowed to continue running whilst restricted for around 15 yards before the whistle went. Sheer frustration led to him stupidly kicking out at Smith and he was rightly ordered off for his petulance.

“The referee didn’t miss six chances. We did,” said Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach. “If we’d scored them, we’d be sitting with three points and be delighted. It [the result] was nothing to do with him. It was about our performance in front of goal. If Reilly has kicked out, then it’s a red card and that’s it. He shouldn’t have done it. He’ll learn and he’ll be suspended now. It’s a learning curve for him.

“I thought we should’ve been about 4-0 or 5-0 up at half-time. We had scored the goal and had four or five other clear-cut chances. If you don’t score them then you’re always going to be under pressure. In the second half we had a few. Nicholson should have scored, Sow should have scored. There’s always an edge when the game nears the end that they’re going to put a ball in and get something, which they did.

“The lesson is we need to be more ruthless when we get chances. I think, at the moment, we miss a chance and we think another one will come, and another one will come. It doesn’t always happen. You have to make sure you take the chance.”

Kilmarnock certainly couldn’t be accused of profligacy. They had a Greg Kiltie effort cleared almost off the goal line by Blazej Augustyn in the first half but made the most of their next big opportunity when it arrived late on. They had pushed forward more and more as the match progressed.

“I felt we deserved to take something from the game, especially on our second-half performance,” said MacDonald. “We created chances and thoroughly deserved our point. I’ve had a few saves but that’s what goalkeepers are for.

“What a finish it was for a centre-half – a half-volley from the edge of the box. We’ll take that any day. Did I expect it? Did I nowt. Conrad usually just gets his big heid in the way of things. No, it’s a great finish from the big man. I saw last year that he scored a few crackers for Partick so he does get a goal for a centre-half, which you need.”