If Hearts are to reach the Europa League qualifying rounds, it will most definitely be via the hard route. A nonchalant start at Hamilton led to an insurmountable deficit and ultimately a defeat the Edinburgh club could ill-afford as they chase the Ladbrokes Premiership’s top four.
“Everyone said it before the game: If you want to qualify for Europe, you’ve got to be winning these games. We haven’t done that,” said defender John Souttar. “I thought we did start too slowly. We tried to pass it, which worked at times. It’s one thing passing the ball but as a Hearts team you’ve got to win second balls, play better than your man and be more aggressive than your man. A lot of people didn’t do that on Saturday.
“If you get beat, it’s hard to get it out of your system. That will be tough now with the international break. It’s done now and we have to deal with it. We are getting down to the business end of the season and Saturday was a big chance for us.”
By full-time, Edinburgh rivals Hibs had closed to within two points of Hearts, who also lost ground on fourth-placed Kilmarnock in the league table. One thing normally guaranteed from Hearts is aggression, energy and a competitive edge at the beginning of a game. Those commodities were conspicuous by their absence in Lanarkshire. A tame opening handed Hamilton the initiative and they executed head coach Brian Rice’s gameplan perfectly.
“It’s the same every time at Hamilton,” explained Souttar. “They will fight and scrap and they’ve got a bit of quality, as you saw from the goal. We weren’t at the races. There were a number of things. We will have a look at the game and see where we thought it went wrong.”
Wing-back Aaron McGowan’s looping first-time finish nine minutes before the break settled this encounter. It was the Englishman’s first goal for Hamilton and helped their quest to avoid relegation.
Hearts’ passive start gave Accies encouragement and, when McGowan hooked Lennard Sowah’s cross home first time, it was no more than the hosts deserved. Rice has the team he inherited from Martin Canning playing decent football and they switched play swiftly from right flank to left before Sowah crossed for McGowan near the back post.
Hearts assumed control of the second half and introduced three forwards from the substitutes’ bench. David Vanecek had been recalled to the starting line-up and struck the crossbar near the interval. That wasn’t enough to prevent him being replaced by Uche Ikpeazu during the break.
Aidan Keena and Craig Wighton followed as manager Craig Levein threw every available weapon at the hosts. Cross after cross arrived in the Hamilton penalty area, where a three-man defence of Alex Gogic, Matt Kilgallon and Ziggy Gordon remained defiant. Hearts did plenty probing but did not test the opposition goalkeeper Gary Woods to any real extent. They managed only one shot on target all afternoon.
“It was frustrating,” admitted Levein. “We were never under any real pressure at all in the match. In the first half, we didn’t do enough to get into the last third. We started the game very slowly and the tempo of our passing wasn’t enough to cause Hamilton any problems. Our passing was off and the level of competitive edge that we normally have was missing for some reason.
“In the second half, we controlled the game much better but didn’t create enough opportunities. Our final cross or final pass was lacking in quality. Hamilton had something to protect, which made it easier for them. We gave ourselves a mountain to climb.
“I don’t know why we started the game in a fashion that gave Hamilton some hope. We spoke before the game about second balls and things that are important when you go to Hamilton. We had been doing that stuff really well so it was frustrating.”
There were 1025 fans from Edinburgh. They let their displeasure be known during the match and at full-time. “That happens at home and away if we don’t play well. That’s something we will accept. I’m not going to make any complaint about that,” said Levein