Hearts move 10 points clear in third with victory over Motherwell
Hearts further strengthened their grip on third place with a relatively comfortable victory over Motherwell. Jamie McIntosh reports.
After seeing the Hearts starting 11, it would’ve been a fair assessment to suggest that manager Robbie Neilson perhaps had one eye on Tuesday’s Edinburgh Derby, making six changes from the midweek defeat to Celtic.
Michael Smith and Craig Halkett were unavailable through injury, but there were timely returns for Beni Baningime and Taylor Moore. In attack, Ellis Simms was handed his first Hearts start after impressing off the bench midweek and new signing Toby Sibbick was among the substitutes.
As for Motherwell, there was a first start for Ross Tierney and on loan Celtic midfielder Liam Shaw, while Jordan Roberts also started on his Tynecastle return.
There was early drama after just three minutes when Liam Kelly was penalised by referee Craig Napier for picking up the ball, having already dropped it in his penalty area. However, the indirect freekick led to nothing.
Up the other end, Craig Gordon got his gloves dirty for the first time that afternoon, tipping a cheeky Kevin van Veen effort round the post.
Hearts hadn’t really got going in the opening 20 minutes, but they did fashion a half chance when Nathaniel Atkinson bombed up the right and flighted a high cross to his opposite full back, Andy Halliday, who could only head straight at Kelly.
In a game of few chances, the opening goal arrived eight minutes before the break, and it came for the home side. Liam Boyce cleverly won the ball back in the Motherwell box and the ball broke to Cammy Devlin who unselfishly teed up on the onrushing Halliday to place the ball past Kelly.
Motherwell manager Graham Alexander would be feeling his side were unlucky to go in at half time a goal down, and Van Veen spurned a golden opportunity to prevent that happening in first half stoppage time.
Roberts showed good persistence up the left to dig out a cross and the striker just couldn’t get enough on his header as it glanced agonisingly wide of the far corner.
There was concern at half time as John Souttar didn’t return for the second half – he was replaced by Toby Sibbick.
Halliday was enjoying himself up the left and almost added his (and Hearts’) second when arriving late on the scene at the back post, but Kelly was alert to deny him.
Hearts still looked sluggish, but the home side managed to double their lead with a well worked move on the break after 58 minutes. Devlin wasn’t having his best game in maroon, but he carried the ball forward well, while Simms made an intelligent run to create space for his strike partner Boyce. Devlin slid the latter in, and Boyce found Simms at the back post to tap in for his first Hearts goal.
Chants of ‘The Gorgie Boys are going to Europe’ started ringing around Tynecastle at this point and Boyce should’ve wrapped up the points after 65 minutes after taking the ball round Kelly. His effort was cleared off the line, but straight to Ben Woodburn, whose follow up effort somehow didn’t find the net.
If truth be told, after a bright beginning, Motherwell had struggled to land a glove on what was a fairly mediocre Hearts display by their usual Tynecastle standards. Van Veen tried his luck from distance, but it was a comfortable save for Scotland’s number one.
Halliday had been in the wars and was given a deserved standing ovation when replaced by Cochrane with just a few minutes remaining. His performance may well earn him a start in Tuesday’s derby.
Gordon was called upon in stoppage time, but apart from that, Hearts saw the remaining minutes out with ease to secure a victory that moves them 10 points clear of Motherwell in third place.