Eight goal thriller sees Jambos come out on top in Boxing Day clash
After last weekend’s Scottish Cup Final, Hearts got back to their pursuit of the Championship title, running out as 5-3 winners over Ayr. Jamie Mcintosh reports.
After last Sunday’s rollercoaster of an afternoon at the national stadium, Hearts returned to league action on Saturday, as they welcomed Ayr United to Tynecastle. Robbie Neilson has already conveyed many times this season that winning the league is Hearts’ main priority this season, so I’m sure he expected his players to be fully focussed on the job in hand after last weekend’s heartache.
Neilson made three changes to the side that started the Scottish Cup Final last weekend, with wingers Jordan Roberts and Elliott Frear coming into the side along with Olly Lee in midfield, replacing Jamie Walker, Steven Naismith and Aidy White. Hearts also made a further announcement before their line-up was released, stating that a first team player had tested positive for COVID-19, but no other player in the squad would have to do the same. There was no sign of Josh Ginnelly at Tynecastle, so through process of elimination, it would appear that the winger is the player in question.
As for the visitors, player-manager Mark Kerr made one change to the side that lost at Gayfield last weekend, with Michael Miller replacing the on-loan Bruce Anderson up front.
As with pretty much every game Hearts will play in the Championship this season, they went into this one as strong favourites, especially with home advantage. However, the conditions were apocalyptically bad, meaning that this game was unlikely to be a Boxing Day classic…
The Match Itself
Hearts had set up to try and play with width today, despite the absence of Josh Ginnelly and wide-man Elliott Frear almost got his second goal for the club in the opening minutes, however he couldn’t convert Stephen Kingsley’s cross.
It had been a positive start from the home side, who had dominated the possession stats, however Hearts’ skipper for the day, Christophe Berra, was forced into producing a crucial block to deflect Andy Murdoch’s strike over the bar after a good counter-attack from the visitors.
The Jambos took the lead after ten minutes and it was no surprise to see the conditions play a part. Viljami Sinisalo has been influential for the Honest Men so far this season, but he won’t want to see this one again, as Stephen Kingsley’s free kick squirmed under the Finnish stopper and into the bottom corner. Kingsley won’t be one to complain though, as his fifth goal of the season gave the hosts the early lead they craved.
Hearts were looking really impressive despite the conditions and had clearly adopted a shoot-on-sight policy – Michael Smith’s 25-yard thunderbolt almost made it two after 15 minutes, however the woodwork came to the visitors’ rescue. This would prove to be the last real action of the half, and the referee blew his whistle 30 minutes later to bring a fairly glib first half to a close.
After an early goal, Mark Kerr probably feared the worst for his side. However, the Ayrshire side were relatively solid defensively, barring Sinisalo’s error. Despite all their defensive work though, they hadn’t caused Hearts enough problems at the other end of the pitch and a 1-0 scoreline for the hosts was probably a fair reflection on the first half.
Hearts should have made the points safe just minutes into the second half – Craig Halkett started the move by striding forward out of defence and the ball was eventually played out wide to Elliott Frear, who picked out the unmarked Olly Lee, but his goal-bound effort was diverted behind by a last-ditch block from Sam Roscoe.
The chances kept coming for the home side – Liam Boyce had been quiet in the first half, but he worked well up the right-hand side to force a save from Sinisalo. The Ayr keeper’s parry was fired back towards goal by Andy Irving, which skipper Jack Baird made sure to get in the way of. After a flurry of Hearts corners, Andy Halliday headed wide when he should have scored, and it did seem like the second Hearts goal was only minutes away.
The second goal of the game did arrive moments later, but it was the visitors who got it. A cross in from the right was flicked on by striker Michael Moffat and Cammy Smith flicked the ball past Craig Gordon to equalise for the visitors. In response, Robbie Neilson immediately introduced Steven Naismith to the action in place of Jordan Roberts who, once again, contributed very little to the Hearts attack.
Ayr turned this game on it’s head on the hour mark, after a cross from the left came all the way through to Luke McCowan, who cut inside and curled a perfect left footed strike into the top corner of the net giving Craig Gordon no chance. After taking their chances well, Ayr suddenly found themselves leading in Edinburgh, and would look to try and hold the lead for the last 30 minutes of the match.
Neilson again turned to his bench in response, this time introducing Craig Wighton in place of Elliott Frear, who tried his best to make an impact but, much like Roberts, contributed very little. This substitution, along with those two quick goals from Ayr, woke the home side up and the Jambos took on the mission of sending Ayr home empty handed.
The equaliser arrived after 68 minutes, when Christophe Berra made it to the by-line (I know, right?) and cut it back for substitute Wighton to side foot home from close range. A good move from the hosts, who deservedly got themselves back on terms. Moments later, they struck again to take the lead, when Stephen Kingsley’s cross wasn’t dealt with and Olly Lee fired the ball in from close range to make it 3-2 with around 20 minutes to go in this topsy-turvy second half.
Hearts were on top now and the points were sealed by substitute Wighton’s second goal of the game. The striker picked up the ball 25 yards from goal, found himself a yard and fired a strike into the bottom corner of the net to make it 4-2.
Relentless, Hearts’ fifth came with 10 minutes left to play, as scorer turned provider with Wighton feeding Liam Boyce on the left-hand side of the box – the striker fired across goal into the far corner to make it 5-2. Hearts had now scored four goals in 13 second half minutes to come from behind and secure the points in very impressive fashion.
Ayr pulled a goal back in comical fashion with the last kick of the game – an uncharacteristic error from Michael Smith saw Bruce Anderson through on goal. The on-loan Aberdeen man rounded Craig Gordon and cut the ball back for Tom Walsh to chip the ball over Halkett and into the empty net.
Considering the conditions, I’m sure both teams were happy to hear referee David Munro’s whistle for the last time just moments later and it was a deserved victory for the hosts in what actually turned out to be a very exciting matchup. Credit to both teams who, despite the constant wind and rain, played some good football at times.
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson was impressed with the character his side showed to come from behind to secure the three points:
“We started well, we got the early goal but then I thought we huffed and puffed a wee bit. We couldn’t get the second goal and sometimes when that happens you get punished and you can lose a goal, unfortunately we lost two. I thought it kicked us into life and we responded well and showed the level we can get to on our day.”
After suffering heartache over his missed penalty last weekend, Stephen Kingsley was proud of the way Hearts responded against Ayr – on a personal note, the left back was equally pleased to have scored his fifth of the season:
“Obviously the way it ended last week wasn’t how we wanted it to, but I was proud of my own performance and all the boys too. I thought we played well in the second half after they scored, I thought we battered them for the remaining 25 minutes, so we conceded three goals today but there’s still positives to take and on the whole it’s a good response to last week.”
Ayr player-manager Mark Kerr thought his side put in a good performance despite the score-line but was disappointed in the manner of how some of Hearts goals were scored:
“The first goal is disappointing because there’s nothing in it. I thought we did well in the first half and matched Hearts and then managed to get ourselves in front. For the second goal though, Christophe Berra has run into our box with the ball and that just shouldn’t happen.”
It’s a quick turnaround for both teams, with both in action again on Tuesday – Hearts stay at Tynecastle, welcoming ninth-placed Arbroath, while Ayr return to Somerset Park to host mid-table Morton.