Hearts players’ silence speaks volumes about team’s failings
MOTHERWELL 2 HEARTS 2
DIRECT, clinical and delivered without the most remote flicker of satisfaction.
This is not Osman Sow’s spectacular 35-yard effort to secure a point for Hearts, equally notable for the Swede’s refusal to indulge in any kind of celebration, that we speak of.
Instead, it is Callum Paterson’s ruthless dissection of a substandard performance by his side and his assertion that actions must speak louder than words if new life is to be breathed into their unlikely challenge for the title.
In the build-up to this visit to Fir Park, Blazej Augustyn had expressed his belief that Hearts could win the Ladbrokes Premiership. It took less than a minute for the Tynecastle club’s captain and centre back to set the tone for an afternoon of defensive inadequacy when putting Louis Moult through on goal with a dreadful pass back and forcing Neil Alexander to race from his line to clear.
Within a matter of seconds, another quite inexplicable error had put Robbie Neilson’s side behind the eight-ball. Alexander dropped a speculative Marvin Johnson cross under pressure from Moult and left the former Wrexham forward with the simple task of tapping home the opener. There were 85 seconds on the clock. “It was a terrible start,” seethed Paterson after the final whistle. “I don’t think this team has ever lost a goal that quickly, so it’s disappointing for us, especially as we’ve been keeping clean sheets recently. We’ve not managed that in the last two games.
“I didn’t enjoy it at all. It was a bad game, bad performance, bad weather, bad result, bad everything.
“There were no words in the dressing room. Just disappointment. Everyone knows what they’ve done wrong.
“That’s four points dropped in two games. People are saying within our team that we can win the title, but we need to look at that and figure it out.
“We set our standards high. Last year, we won the league with about 20 games to spare and a record points total. That’s the standard we set ourselves to take into this season and, today, we haven’t met that.”
Juanma did get Hearts back on level terms quickly when producing a neat ninth-minute finish and both Sow and Paterson forced decent saves from Connor Ripley within the first half hour, but Motherwell had the best of the possession and punished their visitors again on 65 minutes thanks, in no small part, to some excellent refereeing from Steven McLean.
Juanma had squandered a great opportunity – failing to hit the target when one-on-one with Ripley – and Motherwell broke upfield. Scott McDonald was taken out by Igor Rossi on the Main Stand touchline after forcing the ball onto Johnson, but McLean wisely played the advantage with Hearts at sixes and sevens.
Johnson advanced into the area, wriggled clear of Augustyn and rifled a left-footed shot past Alexander and into the far corner. It was only then that McLean booked Rossi for his earlier challenge.
As it was, Hearts were still capable of getting a result. Sow took a pass from Prince Buaben, who gave the team a little more composure after replacing Danny Swanson, and unleashed a remarkable effort that flew over Ripley’s head and almost left a hole in the net.
Indeed, the visitors could have won it eight minutes from time when Sam Nicholson blazed over after Ripley had parried a shot from Juanma into his path. It would have been unfair on the hosts, though, with Paterson conceding that his side’s problems were not restricted purely to defending.
“We just didn’t pass the ball,” he pointed out. “We just brought ourselves down to playing a different level of football and ended up kicking the ball long, trying to win flick-ons. The pitch is no excuse, neither is the weather. It’s down to ourselves. You can’t blame anyone or anything else for bad play.”
Considering this is their first season back in the top division following the disaster of administration, Hearts are doing well. The new third kit they wore on Saturday bore the names of the 8,000 supporters who paid up to help reconstruct the club and it was a nice touch for the players to walk to the away end and hand those jerseys to the travelling support after the final whistle.
In truth, though, they are not going to win the league. It is, to use popular footballing parlance, too big an ask. Stephen Pearson, the former Celtic midfielder now re-establishing himself in the engine room at Motherwell, admits as much.
“I think they are a good side,” he said. “I don’t think they are strong enough yet to challenge Celtic for the title, but I do think they will be up there with Aberdeen for second.”
Motherwell, of course, remain second bottom of the table and deserve to be there, but there was enough drive and energy within their side through the likes of Johnson, Moult, McDonald and Liam Grimshaw to suggest that this season need not descend into another desperate battle to avoid relegation.
SHIRT GESTURE: Hearts Callum Paterson throws his top, decorated with the names of 8,000 supporters