Hearts were once more backed by an away following which surpassed 2,500. The game may have just been ‘along the road’ but it was a hugely impressive number considering so many have had to fork out so much in recent weeks.
For the Gorgie faithful, there have been the Zurich double headers, a midweek League Cup tie with Kilmarnock, trips to Riga, Florence and Istanbul to prepare for and then the home ties with three-game packages starting from £89.
Livingston would have been an easy game to miss but the team were well backed in West Lothian by a noisy and then ultimately frustrated away following.
Livingston boss David Martindale jokingly queried whether it was Cristian Montaño’s twin brother who was the match winner against Hearts. The Colombian-born left-winger-cum-left-back was the man of the match as the West Lothian side saw off their more illustrious capital neighbours with a well deserved 1-0 win. More than just the goal, he has made the left-back position his own this season as Martindale confirmed that “he has definitely been one of our best players this season” after what was an ineffectual debut campaign in West Lothian.
“It took him 12 months to adjust to the style of football, the intensity, the game loads,” Livingston's manager said. “When you come from England they don’t do any gym work down there because it’s travel, play, recover. Come here though and I do a lot of coaching on the park and visual stuff.
“He has really kicked on this year but that’s the player I expected six to 12 weeks into the season last year. It’s just unfortunate I had to pay his wages for 12 months!
“I’m delighted with him and I finally feel I’ve got the player I recruited last year.”
The 30-year-old was a constant threat for the home side before being replaced late on due to injury. Not only did he score, but he offered penetration on the left wing, taking advantage of space created by Joel Nouble. With the game and space in front of him, he was able to eat up ground and make bombarding runs. He also displayed a defensive determination, a recovery just outside the box in the second half demonstrated that willingness to get back in.
There has been plenty of discussion around Hearts across the past week, from the injuries suffered in the 3-2 win over St Johnstone, through the league 1-0 Premier Sports Cup loss to Kilmarnock and transfer window closing, to the latest reverse in West Lothian.
Explanations and excuses have not been in short supply. The injury list, the fatigue, poor recruitment, a lack of depth, poor individual performances have all been suggested.
As ever, such performances, such runs (five defeats in the last six) are a combination of factors. But what is clear watching Hearts is there is a lack of problem solvers in the final third. The team have, over the past six matches, played some good football. It was on show in the first 20 minutes at Livingston and in the first 45 minutes against Livingston and up until Jorge Grant was sent off against Zurich. But it has been all bark and no bite. On Saturday, there were just six shots, none on target and no big chances created.
Barrie McKay is so often the player who provides that attacking bite. Last season he finished second in the Premiership chances created. Third for assists, expected assists and big chances created. He has dropped down the rankings on all of those metrics, albeit still in top ten for chances created and expected assists.
In the first 20 minutes Hearts showed they could create without him with Alex Cochrane and Gary Mackay-Steven getting joy. Once Livi sussed that out, that particular avenue was shut down. McKay, who fell out the game against Killie in the second half, never got into it against Livi. When that happens there is a void. A void which, in the past, would have been filled by Liam Boyce. The Northern Irishman is no longer an option. This requires others to step up to the plate.
Mackay-Steven has had plenty of opportunities to stake a claim for a regular starting berth but there appears to be a reluctance to take on and commit players. Josh Ginnelly has been more productive but he can have a tendency to play back when fielded on the wing.
Another creative forward was certainly sought after and it could be that Jorge Grant is the one to provide that support to McKay on a more regular basis. But more ideas, more solutions to defensive puzzles are required.
Hearts XI plans
It was interesting to hear David Martindale talk about the tactical aspects behind the wind. He started with a 4-4-1-1 with former Hearts star Esmael Goncalves playing behind Joel Nouble before switching to a 4-3-3 with the latter moving wide and Isma playing centrally. He revealed that he had to prepare two game plans because he was unsure as to how Robbie Neilson would set-up his Hearts side.
"I’ve done it with Robbie on Sky Sports, you are looking at the team wondering what the shape is,” the Livi boss said. “It's difficult because he can change the shape in the game with the players he’s put on the park.”
Hearts fans can perhaps take encouragement that opposition managers are in the same boat. There is always plenty of pre-match discussion regarding the system because of the flexibility in the squad.
West Lothian reminder
The vast majority of the 4,678 crowd had dispersed when those in the press box had their interest piqued when a couple of Livi fans voiced their opinion in the direction of the assembled press. Both wanted the efforts of their team recognised. One demonstratively made it known that it was a real team performance, which it was with Joel Nouble’s efforts in a defensive sense and the non-stop running of the midfield three epitomising just that.
The other pointedly noted Livingston had completed the Edinburgh double already this campaign having already defeated Hibs at The Tony Macaroni Arena. The team are looking to make it four seasons in a succession of finishing in a higher league position than one or both of Hearts and Hibs.
They are a team, in their current guise, who deserve all the support they get and more from the West Lothian community and beyond.
Livingston player ratings: George 6; Devlin 6, Kelly 7, Obileye 7, Montano 8 (Longridge N/A); Omeonga 8 (Kelly N/A), Holt 7, Penrice 6 (Bahamboula 7); Goncalves 6 (Guthrie 6); Pittman 7; Nouble 7.
Hearts player ratings: Gordon 7; Sibbick 5, Neilson 5, Kingsley 6, Cochrane 6; Devlin 4 (Haring 6), Halliday 6 (Henderson N/A), Grant 5 (Forrest 5); McKay 4, Humphrys 4 (Ginnelly 5), Mackay-Steven 4 (Shankland 6).