Hearts edge closer to craved consistency at Kilmarnock: Bizarre winner, VAR controversy, key part of team hitting stride
Beating Kilmarnock 1-0 at Rugby Park, Hearts moved up into third place in the Premiership after a fourth successive victory that signals a level of consistency not experienced by the club since they last enjoyed such a sustained winning run, back in 2018.
Manager Steven Naismith spoke about his team’s defensive display on a day when they had to repel a Kilmarnock side that has grown used to bossing things on their own patch. But that was only part of the story as the Ayrshire side contributed to the outcome with a goalkeeping blunder that gave Hearts the lead and an attacking display that faltered, more often than not, at the final stage. Conjuring up 17 shots, only three of them were on target.
Hearts only managed to get one of their 13 efforts on target but, thanks to their hosts’ generosity at one end and profligacy at the other, they didn’t need any more. Kilmarnock boss Derek McInnes refused to let on-loan goalkeeper Will Dennis shoulder the blame for defeat despite his 18th-minute aberration, where he somehow managed to wrangle a Lawrence Shankland cutback into his own net.
On an already freezing cold day, with so many games falling victim to the conditions, it was a mistake to further chill the bones of the 23-year-old Bournemouth keeper and it affected his composure for a while after. But it could have been even worse for the Englishman when, with five minutes of the first half remaining, he scampered out of his area to try to deal with the attacking threat posed by Yutaro Oda. But there was no finesse to his approach and with a high boot and studs showing, he connected with the visiting attacker and sent him tumbling. Many in the ground expected him to be sent packing as a consequence but the referee chose to show him a yellow card instead and although the action was paused to allow VAR to review the whole situation, and the usual degree of confusion prompted boos from the stands and remonstrations in the technical areas, the onfield decision stood.
But McInnes was right. It would be unfair to heap all the criticism on the goalie, given the fact that Shankland had been allowed to run half the length of the park and get to the byeline before cutting the ball back for the goal, even after the Killie boss had stressed the need to tether the Scotland man, and fellow frontman Liam Boyce, acknowledging just how potent they can prove when presented with any kind of opening.
The Northern Irishman hobbled off with a leg niggle after half an hour and that, understandably, had an impact on the Hearts display, especially as Kilmarnock had grabbed a foothold in the game and were pressing for an equaliser that would help preserve their increasingly-impressive home record. While they have still to triumph on the road on league duty, home results had been a massive factor in their move up into the top six. A win over Hearts would have catapulted them further and allowed them to leapfrog their guests.
But Hearts appear to be edging closer to the consistency they crave, and have found form at the right time as the fixture list throws out a cluster of games over the festive period. In a congested league, it offers any side capable of churning out a solid run of results, the chance to really lay down a marker ahead of January’s winter shutdown. Making it five wins in a row may be tricky, with Rangers due in the capital this midweek, but Naismith has seen improvements in the way his men are solving the different problems each opponent throws up and finding ways to get results.
Against Kilmarnock there was a dogged resolve. In the middle of the park, the industry meant that few chances were given away too cheaply and the backline read whatever danger did come their way and managed to get tackles in, make blocks and clear the area before Zander Clark even had to intervene.
Danny Armstrong was a menace on the right flank – so much so that when he had to leave the pitch with a blood injury McInnes chose to carry on for a good few minutes with just ten men to allow him to be patched up rather than replaced. But while he and his colleagues continued to press to the end, making life uncomfortable for their guests, and forcing Clark to step in in the dying minutes, there was no breakthrough.