Unseemly spectacle spells more gloom for Hearts
Dundee Utd 4
Robson (23, 70pen, 88 pen)
A SUPPOSED new era at Hearts felt little different to the last one as the Tynecastle side slipped to a sixth successive defeat amid what became frankly unedifying scenes. It was a game few wanted played, but although both teams were reluctant participants the players found the necessary bite to make it competitive and, even, went beyond the pale on occasion.
Hearts finished with eight men, with Marius Zaliukas, Lee Wallace and then Michael Stewart sent off in a performance sadly defined by a lack of discipline. Stevie Frail, the interim manager, has much to do if he is to arrest the current slide, and was ill-served by the actions of his own players yesterday. While referee Alan Freeland was his usual attention-attracting self, Hearts had only themselves to blame. Zaliukas was red-carded for an off-the-ball elbow directed at Lee Wilkie. Wallace then followed him into the dressing-room three minutes before the end after he was red-carded for a professional foul on Barry Robson, who completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot.
While there was some sympathy for Wallace, penalised for what was simply a poor tackle, the defender then appeared to nudge Freeland and subsequently raged at a linesman. Stewart's red card was the result of what appeared a prolonged mission on his part to reach the dressing room first, although when he finally received his red card, in the final seconds, Zaliukas and Wallace were already in the showers.
Stewart, involved in a furious bust-up with team-mate Christophe Berra in the second-half, was booked in the run-up to United's third goal, after a late challenge on Robson. He was then sent off in injury-time after he was booked for gesturing back to a Hearts fan in the main stand. Freeland appeared to lament being required to make this decision, with the game already having strayed far from what many had hoped it would be – a fitting tribute to Phil O'Donnell.
To United's credit, they kept their heads and in Robson possessed a player whose skills show-cased the positive side of football. He gave his side the lead in what might prove to be one of his last appearances for the club, with Celtic expected to bid for his services this month.
And although Berra equalised for Hearts after 37 minutes, United were dominant in the second half, and further goals from Robson, both from the penalty spot, and Noel Hunt ended the Tannadice side's recent poor run of form. Robson converted both these awards with ease, and in between times he provided the cross from which an unmarked Hunt headed home United's third goal.
The game kicked off in a hushed atmosphere which suited the initial down-beat mood. Even after the victory, the United players were subdued. Robson said nothing else mattered save for O'Donnell, and he was right. Even Stewart took himself away from the away dressing-room and was seen pacing the side of the Tannadice pitch in his shorts and socks, shirt slung over his shoulder, seeming already to regret his actions as he reflected.
Life goes on, but not yet, and not now, was the message which emanated before kick-off from the Dundee United camp, where a desire to postpone the match had been expressed on Tuesday. It was entirely understandable, with those such as Wilkie among the first to race to help O'Donnell after the player's collapse on Saturday. But those involved yesterday served up a meaty 90 minutes, with Hearts appearing particularly fired up. Perhaps this stemmed from Frail's long-delayed promotion to the post of manager, even if only on a temporary basis. In the end, though, the players hardly helped his bid to retain the job for longer than just a few weeks, or maybe only days.
Zaliukas's fly-punch out at Wilkie hit Hearts especially hard. Not only did they lose the influential centre-half, but compounding this was the penalty Freeland eventually awarded United. Although the ball had been cleared when Zaliukas made contact with Wilkie in the penalty box, and play was set to re-start with a throw-in, Freeland, on the advice of his far-side assistant, suddenly raced to collect the ball, and pointed to the spot.
The offence had occurred before the ball left the field of play, Freeland had been told. The United fans erupted, while the Hearts fans, after some moments of disbelief, vented their fury at the referee, who had already done little to merit kinder treatment from this section of the ground.
Sometimes this ill-feeling flared between team-mates, with Stewart involved in a public row with Berra. The pair clashed in the second-half after the impressive Robson found Hunt in space in the box. Hunt's header drifted marginally wide, but this cut little ice with Stewart who raced towards Berra and admonished him. The captain took exception to Stewart's finger-pointing and appeared to push his head towards his team-mate. The pair eventually saw sense and parted, but it signalled how football can often exist in a vacuum. Once the blood is up, everything else is forgotten. Stewart had already raged at Robbie Neilson after a mix-up at a throw-in.
Having been ordered to play by SPL officials, United and Hearts paid their tribute to O'Donnell with a minute's applause, as did both sets of fans. The floodlights were already on full-beam on an appropriately overcast afternoon, and the opening minutes were pitched at a level somewhere below full-tempo.
But the match was enlivened by a poor decision from Neilson, who elected to clear a ball by passing back to his goalkeeper, Steve Banks. Whether he had intended to place this quite so obviously towards goal seemed up for debate, but Banks certainly believed he would gain the benefit of any doubt when he clutched a ball that otherwise had looked set to sail over his head into the goal.
Banks was enraged when Freeland whistled for a foul, although he himself escaped a booking even after throwing the ball away in fury. But Hearts were more heavily punished. Wilkie tapped the ball into the path of Robson, whose powerful shot into the top corner evaded the wall of players on the goal-line.
The Hearts fans received a boost when Devidas Cesnauskis made his first appearance for 13 months, having replaced the injured Andrew Driver. The away side were given further hope when Berra pulled Hearts level, sliding in at the far post to convert a deflected Stewart corner. The second half, however, saw Hearts fall apart, amid controversial refereeing decisions and their own poor behaviour.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Barry Robson (Dundee United)
Even without his hat-trick, he was the classiest performer on view. He also set up United's other strike in a display which underlined just why he will be missed so badly by the club should he leave this month.