A strange season becomes even stranger with the realisation that Hearts’ home form is, for once, undermining them.
Tynecastle Park, so long a fortress feared by visitors, is where Dundee, Livingston and St Mirren have all collected points since the Ladbrokes Premiership’s winter break.
It was the Paisley club’s turn on Saturday as Sean Clare’s own goal negated Clevid Dikamona’s deadlock-breaking header for the hosts. The 1-1 final scoreline cost Hearts ground in their quest to qualify for Europe and follows a goalless draw with Livingston and defeat by Dundee in Gorgie in the last month. Beating St Johnstone is one of too few recent positives for supporters used to seeing their team dominant at Tynecastle.
Manager Craig Levein puts the unusually disappointing home form down to a failure to start matches in an aggressive, high-tempo fashion. That was the case again at the weekend against the Ladbrokes Premiership’s bottom club, whose only win in their past ten games was against Championship side Alloa in the Scottish Cup.
“We didn’t cross the ball enough and we didn’t pass the ball quickly or accurately enough. Alongside that, we had some players who didn’t play well. The recipe wasn’t a good one,” admitted Levein. “St Mirren came to do to us what they did to Aberdeen last week, so all credit to them. However, when a team does defend deeper and you have the ball in front of them, then the ball needs to move quickly. It didn’t move quickly enough.
“We’re normally really good at getting off to a quick start at Tynecastle. That usually gets the supporters right behind us. Saturday’s lack of urgency and lack of quick passing results in what you saw. We need to do better.”
Supporters grew impatient as time wore on, just as they had done in the games above. That mix of a ticking clock and craving for a goal in a tension-filled atmosphere brought an ambience to Tynecastle which only helps visiting players. St Mirren thrived on it and executed a counter-attacking gameplan to scrap for a hard-earned point.
Congolese defender Clevid Dikamona headed Hearts in front after the interval but the visitors were level within 11 minutes. Sean Clare inadvertently headed a corner beyond the reinstated Zdenek Zlamal in the home goal. Indeed, the Czech’s expert reactions prevented a second own goal moments later when he touched the ball to safety after Dikamona’s outstretched leg deflected a cross towards the net.
The result offered shoots of hope that St Mirren perhaps can avoid relegation having also drawn 2-2 with Aberdeen at Pittodrie seven days previously. “I’d have preferred one defeat and one win because we would be a point better off,” said manager Oran Kearney. “The fact we’ve strung two really good, solid performances together in two weeks is maybe as good as those points we didn’t get. You’re hoping that is a real catalyst. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I wasn’t confident we would do it.”
After losing 2-1 in the dying seconds at Fir Park the previous weekend, Levein didn’t sense any hangover amongst his players. He swapped goalkeepers and left Colin Doyle on the bench after his last-gasp mistake against Motherwell. “I don’t think there was a hangover. I thought we did okay last week, the performance against Motherwell was probably better than against St Mirren,” he said.
“We had some good chances against St Mirren which we didn’t take. They might have settled us a little bit. I’m frustrated that we’re doing things we don’t normally do. Decision-making when you’re feeling a bit under pressure becomes cloudy at times. You try to do more to make things better and really it just makes it worse.”
Injuries are dissipating and Hearts were close to full strength at the weekend with Peter Haring back in midfield after two months out. “It’s almost like: ‘That’s them back, we should be winning.’ But everybody has to pull their weight. Everybody has a role,” stressed Levein. “If you come into a game thinking, ‘we’ve got Peter back, we’ve got Uche back, we should win,’ it’s not as simple as that.”
Clare’s own goal came just as Hearts seemed to take a grip of proceedings early in the second half. That merely added to the frustration and killed their momentum stone dead. “Sean was beating himself up about it. I think he got spun round and the ball hit him on the head. It summed up our afternoon,” remarked Levein.