Sunday, 30 March 2014

Heart of Midlothian 2 Hibernian 0

SPFL, Sunday 30 March 2014 – Tynecastle

The fourth Edinburgh derby of the season had been billed, particularly from those from the east of the city, as the game which would finally seal Hearts fate and consign the Gorgie boys to their fate of Championship football next season. A rare win for Hibernian at Tynecastle would mean Hearts would be unable to catch 11th placed St. Mirren and would face the prospect of slugging it out for promotion back to the top flight of Scottish football with the likes of Rangers when the new season starts in August.

However, Gary Locke’s young side didn’t read the script and recorded their third win over Hibernian this season, two wins being in the league, the other at Easter Road in the League Cup. Hibernian had sold out their allocation of tickets for the game but for those bedecked in green and white who arrived in Gorgie wearing party hats and streamers, the occasion was as akin to turning up at a New Year Party – in the middle of January. Indeed, given Terry Butcher’s side’s freefall in recent weeks, there may well be another ‘relegation party’ between these two teams in a few weeks at Easter Road – one can’t rule out the possibility the Hibees may be accompanying their great rivals in the Championship next season if they slip further down the league and are involved in the dreaded play-offs.

Both sides may have had hugely disappointing seasons and the kick-off may have been the hardly traditional Sunday lunch time but the atmosphere at Tynecastle was as frenetic as ever on Edinburgh derby day. This was fuelled early on by a wreckless challenge from Hibs Lewis Stevenson which caught the chest of Hearts striker Callum Paterson. The young forward was uninjured, though, and after just seven minutes, he crossed from the right towards Ryan Stevenson. The former Ayr United and Ipswich Town player headed the ball into the path of Dale Carrick who did well to control the ball before firing past Hibs keeper Williams. 1-0 to the home side to the obvious delight of the home support who once again turned up in numbers.

Hibs looked momentarily stunned by this turn of events but eventually began to claw their way back into the game. Danny Handling was given too much space on the edge of the Hearts penalty box but his effort on goal sailed over the crossbar. Soon afterwards, Hibs were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the Hearts penalty box but Sam Stanton’s effort was well wide of goal. The best chance for the visitors, though, fell to £200,000 striker James Collins who was set up by Watmore. However, from 12 yards out, Collins fired his shot high into the stand, much to the frustration of the visiting support for whom the party was turning decidedly miserable.

Hearts also had chances to double their lead and Sam Nicholson’s fierce shot was saved well by Williams.

Hearts almost began the second half the way they began the first and fine play from Dale Carrick set up David Smith whose effort whistle past the post of Williams.

Hibs then claimed loudly for handball when Hearts Australian defender Dylan McGowan blocked Collins' shot on the edge of the penalty box but to no avail before Ryan McGivern’s two attempts on goal were more in hope than expectation.

Towards the end of the game, it appeared Hibernian had snatched the equaliser. Stevenson’s cross was headed by Forster past Hearts keeper Jamie MacDonald into the net but the visiting support’s raptures were soon doused by the appearance of the assistant referee raising his flag for offside. Television replays showed this to be an incorrect decision by some distance as the Hibs man was clearly onside. The fury felt by the Hibs fans was shared by manager Terry Butcher and some of the Hibs players, particularly Alan Maybury who took his frustration out on Hearts substitute Billy King by tripping the Hearts youngster. A second yellow card was shown to the former Hearts favourite meaning the visitors were reduced to ten men.

Given Hearts surrendered a 2-1 lead to nine men in the League Cup semi-final defeat to Inverness Caledonian Thistle a few weeks ago, few of the Hearts support were taking anything for granted. However, in stoppage time with Hibs pressing for the equaliser, Hearts broke away. The experienced Ryan Stevenson timed his pass to Billy King to perfection and the youngster kept his cool before rounding Hibs keeper Williams to end the scoring at 2-0 to Hearts.  

Afterwards, jubilant Hearts manager Gary Locke said "It's probably too little, too late but the players have shown they're improving and hopefully we've got a strong future. Our wide men and Dale Carrick up front caused them quite a lot of problems. The whole team played very, very well. It was a great game and Hibs added to that by having a right go in the second half. It was end to end and I was obviously delighted to see young Billy King score at the end.”

For Hibernian, it was yet another disappointing outcome to an Edinburgh derby. Manager Terry Butcher could not contain his anger at the assistant referee’s decision to rule out Jordon Forster's headed goal.

"It's scandalous, it really is," said the former England captain. “It's a horrendous call from the linesman. He can see right along the line of grass. He can spot the player who was playing Jordon Forster on. The players worked very hard, the system was good and they applied themselves but we've lost the game and it's hard to take. We've left the players in no uncertain terms that we need to get going now. We have six games left and we have to get points and I am confident that we can do that.

"Every club in the bottom half is in a dog fight. We need to pull our fingers out and work harder."

Hearts relegation fate may well be confirmed when high-flying Aberdeen visit Gorgie on Wednesday but Sunday’s victory was at least a last hurrah for their beleaguered but magnificently loyal supporters who are making no secret of the fact they hope their city rivals will still be with them next season.

For Hibernian, the loss of form at a crucial time of the season is a worry. They are six points clear of a play-off place in the league and the lack of games left suggests they should be okay. But their failure to defeat Hearts yet again means one can’t really be confident Terry Butcher’s side will beat anyone else this season. The Easter Road fans will be hoping St. Mirren and Partick Thistle don’t suddenly discover form as the nerve-jangling prospect of a play-off is hardly one to look forward to.

Hearts: MacDonald; Paterson, McGowan, Wilson, McHattie; Hamill, Holt, R. Stevenson; Smith, Carrick, Nicholson.

Hibs: Williams, McGivern, Nelson, Collins, L. Stevenson, Maybury, Handling, Taiwo, Watmore, Forster, Stanton.

Referee: Steven McLean

Att: 16,873

Top man: Danny Wilson – immense in the Hearts defence.


Saturday, 22 March 2014

Heart of Midlothian 1 Dundee United 2

SPFL, Friday 21 March 2014 – Tynecastle

BT Sport’s television deal with the SPFL has seen several games this season switched to a Friday evening. This week it was Hearts turn and the novelty of starting the weekend by going to the football seemed to entice nearly 13,500 fans to Tynecastle on a night when you wouldn’t have sent the dog out as rain lashed Scotland’s capital city. Perhaps it was the prospect of the first competitive game on a Friday at Tynecastle for half a century.

Sadly for the Maroon Army, the outcome of the game was the same as it has been for much of the season. Another defeat pushed Hearts ever closer to Championship football next season.

The difficult conditions leant weight to that oft-used cliché ‘not conducive to good football’ although Dundee United still tried to play the passing style that has won them so many admirers this season. That said, their early attempts at goal were long-range efforts from Rankin and Robertson that failed to trouble a mud-splattered Jamie MacDonald in the Hearts goal. If anything, it was Hearts who looked more threatening with some laudable build-up play and Kevin McHattie fired an effort which was saved by United keeper Cierzniak before Dale Carrick had an effort that went close.

As half-time appeared on the horizon, I mentioned that Hearts had done well to keep the free-scoring United team at bay. Therefore, I blame myself for the visitors immediately taking the lead ten minutes before the break. Good build up play from Dow and Robertson set up Graham with the easiest of chances which he duly took from three yards with the home side half-heartedly appealing for offside. Hearts tried to fight back and Callum Paterson headed David Smith’s cross over the crossbar when he really should have hit the target before Ryan Stevenson fired in an effort that shook the rainwater from the side net. Half-time arrived with United a goal ahead.

United began the second half on the offensive with Robertson producing a fine save from Jamie MacDonald before Ciftci wasted a chance to double the visitor’s lead. Soon after, Armstrong produced another great save from Hearts increasingly busy goalkeeper and it seemed just a matter of time before the second goal would come. It duly arrived 20 minutes from time with a quite brilliant goal from the impressive Ciftci who danced passed three Hearts players before firing a superb shot past the diving Jamie Mac.

To their credit, Hearts refused to throw in the towel and eight minutes later, skipper Danny Wilson powered home a header from Sam Nicholson’s corner kick to pull a goal back which resulted in a spirited finish from the home side. However, it was to no avail and Hearts relegation will be confirmed next Sunday should they fail to beat Hibernian in the Edinburgh derby. It’s a scenario manager Gary Locke isn’t willing to contemplate and he spoke afterwards about his hope that his young team would record their third victory of the season over their great rivals.

“It's what our supporters deserve," said the Gorgie boss. "Everyone knows the situation we're in and the fans were right behind the cause again tonight. To get 13,500 on a Friday night is nothing short of incredible. We can't thank the fans enough."

Hearts: MacDonald; Paterson, McGowan, Wilson, McHattie; Stevenson, Robinson, Hamill; Smith, Carrick, Nicholson.

Dundee Utd: Cierzniak, Wilson, Gunning, Dillon, Robertson, Paton, Rankin, Graham, Armstrong, Dow, Ciftci. .

Referee: Bobby Madden

Att: 13,448

Top man: Jamie MacDonald


Sunday, 16 March 2014

Glam Rock, Flares and Saturday Afternoons

Given Scotland haven’t qualified for the finals of a major tournament since the World Cup in France in 1998, there was inevitable excitement when the draw for the qualifying stages of the 2016 European Championships was made in Paris the other week. After what seems like a life-long struggle to make any kind of progress, there seems genuine hope that Scotland, under the tutelage of the ebullient Gordon Strachan, might actually qualify for the finals in France two years from now. Of course, Germany are rightly the favourites but there’s no reason to suggest Scotland can’t get the better of the Republic of Ireland, Poland – who the Scots defeated in Warsaw a few days ago -  Georgia and Gibraltar, particularly when those countries visit Glasgow. And there would be a certain symmetry if Scotland’s first appearance at the finals of a major tournament for the best part of two decades were in the same country of their last appearance in 1998.

Much as the draw was the cause of some excitement, my enthusiasm was dampened somewhat when I saw the dates and kick-off times for the fixtures. Not one of the scheduled games involving Scotland will kick-off at 3.00pm on a Saturday. The Scots’ opening game in Germany will kick-off at hardly the most traditional of times – 7.45pm on the evening of Sunday 7 September. Scotland will play their next game on a Saturday – against Georgia in Glasgow on 11 October – but it will start at 6.00pm. The following fixture in Poland will be on a Tuesday evening before the Republic of Ireland visit Glasgow – on a Friday six weeks before Christmas.

Those of you who regularly read my ramblings on this website - and I thank both of you – may realise I’m something of a traditionalist. Yes, looking back at years gone by can sometimes give a false impression, with fifty-something supporters like me tending to view things through maroon-tinted spectacles. I try not to hark on to youngsters about how things were when I were a lad because it can be very irritating. However, when I were a lad, for the most part, there were two days when games were played and two kick-off times. Hearts and Scotland, for that matter, would either play at 3.00pm on a Saturday or 7.30pm on a Wednesday.

Of course there are two main reasons why football in 2014 can be played at any time, no matter how inconvenient to the fans. Television and money – and one follows the other. Some of my childhood in the 1970s was spent watching a struggling Hearts team and a Scotland team who, on their day, could just about beat anyone (the Scots returned home from the World Cup in Germany in 1974 as the only unbeaten team in the tournament) Back then, we didn’t need to check the fixtures to see if Hearts were playing on a Friday night, Saturday lunch time, Sunday or Monday evening. When Scotland played it was usually a Wednesday with the home internationals occurring at the end of the season, for example, Wales on a Saturday, Northern Ireland midweek and the auld enemy of England on the following Saturday with the bi-annual weekend trip to Wembley being the highlight of many Scots supporters lives.

Of course, back in the decade of glam rock, flares and long hair – and I recall fondly the days when I actually had hair – there was no satellite or cable television in this country. We had the BBC and ITV and that was it. The attitude from the powers-that-be who ran Scottish football was that televising an entire 90 minutes of football live would drive fans away from the game. Therefore, only the Scotland-England international and perhaps the odd World Cup qualifier were shown live on the wee box. Even the Scottish Cup final wasn’t shown live on television until 1977. There were the odd game or two, such as Celtic or Rangers in big European games which were shown live but these were few and far between.

Now, television dictates when football will be played. Hearts game with Dundee United this coming Friday is a case in point although, in fairness, there’s something appealing about Friday evening football as the increase in attendances at these games has shown. However, there’s something which strikes at the heart when looking at Scotland’s fixtures for the Euro 2016 qualifiers. The big kick-off in Germany will be eagerly anticipated but a Sunday evening, when many people are contemplating another fraught working week, may douse the fervour somewhat. And it will mean another Saturday afternoon kicking our heels or being dragged through DIY stores having to answer the perennial question ‘why haven’t you fixed that shelf in the kitchen yet?’

The huge sums of money involved in club football these days has led many people to question if international football has quite the same appeal as it did in the days of the dodgy perm and the dulcet tones of commentators Archie MacPherson and Arthur Montford. Having obscure kick-off times will only add fuel to the fire of those who feel it doesn’t.

And those who feel a sadness that a Saturday afternoon at 3.00pm is fast becoming become eerily quiet…


Mike Smith

Twitter @Mike1874

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Kilmarnock 4 Heart of Midlothian 2

SPFL, Saturday 8 March 2014 – Rugby Park

It says much about this season that Hearts supporters travelled to Ayrshire on Saturday hoping their team would collect three points not so they could avoid demotion but more that the final nail in the relegation coffin wouldn’t be administered by bitter rivals Hibernian at Tynecastle at the end of this month. They left Rugby Park inevitably disappointed as Gary Locke’s side shipped four goals to Allan Johnston’s side for the second time this season and suffered a third straight loss to a team that had proved to be something of a bogey to Hearts in recent years.

Yet, as at Motherwell last Saturday, Hearts began the game brightly with Ryan Stevenson shooting wide and the Maroons looking lively on the counter-attack. However, it was the same old story of missed chances and defensive frailties for the Edinburgh side. After keeper Jamie MacDonald denied Ashcroft, the home side took the lead after 27 minutes when the always dangerous McKenzie sped down the right wing before firing in a cross which Hearts skipper Danny Wilson could only divert past his own goalkeeper.

Hearts, though, again demonstrated their battling qualities and equalised just three minutes later. Ashcroft’s attempts to usher the ball back to his goalkeeper failed miserably for the home side when Dale Carrick nipped in to send ball beyond Samson to level the score. At least the Hearts supporters had something to cheer at half-time with the score at 1-1.

Sadly, within six minutes of the re-start, Hearts were 3-1 down. First, ex-Killie defender Jamie Hamill was dispossessed by Boyd on the edge of the penalty box and the former Rangers and Scotland striker showed his experience to slip the ball past MacDonald.

Two minutes later, a mistake from Hearts Dylan McGowan proved costly and Boyd made the Australian suffer by shooting high into the net. It looked all over for Hearts at this stage but they were thrown a lifeline with 20 minutes to go when substitute Billy King passed to Sam Nicholson who despatched the ball beyond Samson to make it 3-2 and give some hope to the visiting support.

This hope lasted all of three minutes. Gardyne’s shot struck the Hearts crossbar but the Gorgie defenders could not clear their lines and when Tesselaar returned the ball to Gardyne this time the Killie player didn’t miss. 4-2 to the home side and while substitute Paul McCallum had the ball in the net in the dying stages his effort was ruled out for offside. Yet again Hearts returned to the capital city with nothing.

If Hearts were to win every one of their remaining nine games this would yield 27 points. Currently, the Maroons are 20 points adrift. The last rites on Hearts Premiership status will soon, if you’ll excuse the phrase, be administered…

Kilmarnock: Samson, Tesselaar, Boyd, Karlsson, Clohessy, McKenzie, Gardyne, O'Hara, Slater, Pascali, Ashcroft.

Hearts: MacDonald; McGhee, McGowan, Wilson, McHattie; Stevenson, Hamill, Robinson, Nicholson; Carrick, Paterson

Referee: Euan Norris

Att: 3,510

Top man: Sam Nicholson


Sunday, 2 March 2014

Motherwell 4 Heart of Midlothian 1

SPFL Premiership, Saturday 1 March 2014 - Fir Park
Hearts record at Motherwell isn’t particularly impressive so when manager Gary Locke spoke before the game of his hope that his young team would embark on a run of victories which would make the teams immediately above Hearts in the SPFL Premiership uncomfortable, it was difficult to believe his words had much substance. And so it proved on Saturday as the Maroons slipped closer to the now inevitable relegation trapdoor following a comprehensive defeat in darkest Lanarkshire.

Yet Hearts, unchanged from last week’s decent effort against league champions Celtic, began the game brightly with Calum Paterson looking lively up front. That said, it was the home team who created the game’s first real chance when a shot from Ainsworth took a deflection off Scott Robinson, forcing keeper Jamie MacDonald to push the ball over the crossbar.

It was the kick-start the home side needed and they began to dominate proceedings. In the 18th minute, their pressure eventually told on the visitors. The always-dangerous McFadden set up Vigurs who created space and time before shooting all too easily past Jamie Mac to put the Steelmen a goal up.

Hearts then threatened briefly when Ryan Stevenson saw his free-kick go just wide of goal before Paul McCallum saw his header go just over the crossbar. However, the pattern of the game remained much the same with Motherwell looking dangerous whenever they came forward. It was scarcely a surprise when they doubled their lead eight minutes before half-time. Again, it was the former Scotland international McFadden who was the architect when he launched a high pass towards Ainsworth who produced a fine finish to leave MacDonald helpless and put the home side 2-0 ahead. There endeth the first half scoring, although McFadden should have added a third but saw his header go narrowly over the bar.

The second half followed much the same pattern as the first and Vigurs, Lasley and Leitch all had chances to increase the home side’s lead. That said, it was Hearts who almost scored next when Dale Carrick’s superb effort clipped the Motherwell crossbar. Twenty minutes into the second half, Motherwell sealed all three points when former Hearts striker John Sutton scored the third goal after McFadden had again tormented the Hearts defence.

Four minutes later there was a small glimmer of hope for the vociferous travelling support when Callum Paterson headed home Kevin McHattie’s corner to make it 3-1. This hope didn’t last long, however, when man of the match McFadden headed home Vigur’s corner to complete the scoring and another miserable afternoon for Hearts.

Gary Locke didn’t mince his words in the press conference after the game.

“We've taken great strides in the last few weeks, but today we've gone backwards again. You're never going to win a game if only three or four players turn up. We've got to make sure we compete all the time, and today we were second best in too many areas of the pitch. It’s a young team and we're learning all the time. You've got to work hard to get anything out of games in this league, and I felt Motherwell - especially James McFadden and his experience - caused us all sorts of problems which we never got to grip with."

With Hearts now 20 points behind Partick Thistle and Ross County at the foot of the Army, the Gorgie side are just four games away from relegation and may well have suffered this fate before Easter.

Looking to come straight back up to the top flight a year from now must be the focus of everyone at Tynecastle.

Motherwell: Hollis, Read, Francis-Angol, Lasley, Huchinson, McManus, Ainsworth, Leitch, McFadden, Sutton, Vigurs.

Hearts: MacDonald, McGowan, McHattie, Robinson, McKay, Wilson, Stevenson, Hamill, Paterson, McCallum, Nicholson.

Referee: John Beaton

Att: 4,914

Top Man: Jamie MacDonald