"I don't get that,” Killie boss Derek McInnes said about the extra time. "I don’t know who makes that decision. I think the physio is on once, maybe. There was one VAR decision. I thought it was an unusual length of time. Thankfully we managed to see it out.”
You can understand why the crowd and McInnes were so antsy, so agitated. The team had not won in the Premiership since the beginning of February. They needed a win and what better weekend to get it than when both relegation rivals were playing either half of the Old Firm.
It hadn't started well. A goal behind after seven minutes from a pinpoint Lawrence Shankland strike . It got better. By the half-time interval they were in front thanks to goals from Danny Armstrong and Christian Doidge, aided by suspect goalkeeping from Zander Clark. It was a lead they looked like adding to. Until the spanner in the works came. McInnes has spoken often about VAR. After a loss at Easter Road he declared: “I'm sick to death of this VAR”. It intervened once more. Rory McKenzie had left Hearts midfielder Jorge Grant in a heap in the middle of the pitch. The Englishman directed referee Euan Anderson to look just under his knee. Soon VAR was ushering Anderson to the sidelines for a second. A red card. No question. Yet, all it did was galvanise the home side.
Key tactical decision
The decibel level of the support went up a notch as the fans got behind their team. McInnes made a brave change. Off went Jordan Jones rather than one of the forwards as Killie went four at the back. “I wanted to keep two strikers on the pitch for us to have somewhere to go. They went 4-2-4, even before the ten men. It was [Stephen] Humphrys against Jordan Jones. If you are having a lot of the ball then you fancy that but if you surrender possession the rationale is Humphrys is going to get a lot more of the ball. We felt we needed a defender on that side. We kept a front two to keep their centre halves honest and get us up the pitch”.
It was an honest performance from the home side. One full of endeavour, positive attitude and ultimately quality. The visiting defence couldn't handle Doidge and especially the power of Kyle Vassell. The midfield was overrun. Again. Killie did to Robbie Neilson's men what Aberdeen had two weeks’ previous. They pressed and suffocated what is an increasingly ponderous and predictable Hearts team. When the ball was won they were direct and physical. Hearts didn’t match up, didn’t win their individual battles. Didn't earn the right to play the way they wanted. By the half-time whistle. Hearts had 58 per cent of possession with more than 200 passes. Killie had fewer than 150 yet the shot count was ten to four in the home team’s favour. They had more passes in the Hearts half than the other way about. This was nothing new to an increasingly frustrated and angry.
Hearts difficulty and anger
The huge away following made their feelings known at full-time. To players and managers. Not good enough was the more polite assessment. Hearts are in trouble. They haven't been good enough, performance wise, for weeks even when they have won games. They should be feeling very nervous. Very anxious. They had two weeks to come up with a plan, a response from the Pittodrie debacle. It started well. But there was no response to Killie’s equaliser. There was no reaction to going behind. There was no answer to playing against ten men. In fact they got worse. Summed up by a cross-field pass from Barrie McKay to Alan Forrest, the latter falling flat on his face as he tried to bring the ball under control.
“This club is about winning football matches,” Neilson said. “We’ve been through adversity before here. It’s part of Hearts – demotion, relegation, administration. We have these difficult periods and we’re having a difficult period just now. Four games on the bounce and it’s been tough. The only way to get through it is to stick together and fight together.”
They need to learn that sooner rather than later. Despite their struggles this season, Kilmarnock displayed that fight. To a man they were excellent. None more so than 18-year-old midfielder David Watson. He had controlled proceedings last time out against St Johnstone. This time he harried, hounded and hunted Hearts, especially Robert Snodgrass. In the 88th minute he still had the energy to pick the pocket of his experienced opponent before stinging the palms of Ross Stewart, who had replaced the injured Clark in the Hearts goals. Moments later he was replaced. It seemed every single person of a Killie persuasion was on their feet. And rightly so.
"He's such a great kid," McInnes said. “ He rolled his ankle which was heavily strapped up. Good on him and never at any point did he say he wouldn't make it. We had energy and bite in the middle of the park. Watson and [Liam] Donnelly were terrific – the driving force in the middle of the park."
He wasn’t the only driving force. The fans in the stand did that job. McInnes kicked every ball and more on the sidelines, turning to his bench to shout at anyone after Sam Walker opted to punch rather than catch a cross in stoppage time. It was, as the Killie boss put it, “heroic at times” as they put six points between them and Dundee United in 12th.