The Better Team Won And Don’t You Forget It:  
Hearts 2 Motherwell 1

Back to Chief Grouser

Don’t anyone pay attention to foolhards.   Hearts were the better team, at the kick-off,  at the start of the second half, and at the full time whistle.   For some mysterious reason Hearts chose not to be the better team for half an hour between 50 and 80 minutes but the last ten minutes were disconcertingly comfortable considering what had gone before.   So don’t go getting all worried on us.   The first half was quite an assured display and 1-0 was the right score at the break.  It all seemed a little overcautious as the midfield was playing a bit deep and the full backs weren’t getting forward enough, but Motherwell’s recent record (especially against us) is impressive, so perhaps security was paramount early on, and Hearts’ crisp passing and good movement suggested there weren’t going to be problems.   Once the first goal was scored – out of the top drawer, by the way – the football we were playing suggested a comfortable if not devastating victory.    It’s been a long time since we have lost a game after taking the lead, and recent displays especially have been characterised by competing strongly in the first half to win the midfield space and then going on to exploit that space in the second half to win the game.  McFadden’s speed and skill seemed all Hearts had to worry about – apart from themselves, that is…


Of course, had Valois knocked in a second shortly after half-time none of this discussion might be going on, but from that moment onwards Hearts were struck down by footballing blight as though they’d put their boots back on the wrong foot while sipping their half-time cuppa.   If it’s true that a team plays as well as the other lets it, then Motherwell were brilliant only because Hearts were utterly calamitous.   This was proven in the last ten minutes when suddenly we remembered how to play football and it all became very easy again.    Motherwell had only what we gave them – in the first half crumbs, in the second a banquet.   I have no idea why it all happened – all I  can say is Thank God we weren’t flying a plane - but one of Craig Levein’s qualities is that he learns lessons and does something to make it not happen again.   It’s one of the good things about inexperienced managers, rather than warhorse managers who are veterans of the game (the sort that make substitutions a little bit too late – with me on this one, sports fans?   More later.)   We got away with it, sure, but Hearts have earned many of their victories this season with hard work and application, so I for one will not feel embarrassed when someone cuts us a slice of luck.  


Equally, some individual performances were so out of character that we can draw a line beneath them and be assured they won’t happen often again.    Everything Valois touched turned to lead, Severin was competitive but not mobile (is he ever fully fit?) and even McFarlane’s passing went astray.   Worst, when Pressley’s not fit he tries far too hard, his timing goes, his judgement is poor, and he overstretches himself, embarrassingly so.   And then when the team isn’t playing well, as happened here, he feels it’s his responsibility to sort it out, and tries to do everyone else’s job, so we had to suffer the untidy spectacle of a good player making himself look bad.  However, he’s a professional so he can put a bad game behind him.   If we’re real supporters we can put it behind us too.  It happens, get over it.   Let’s hope he’s fitter next week.  


It seemed odd for Craig Levein to replace Neil McFarlane with Stephen Simmonds when keeping possession of the ball was the one things Hearts desperately needed, but we (and Levein himself) might for once allow the manager some credit for a tactically-deep substitution: he later said Hearts were not attacking enough.   “I wanted to change where the game was being played,” he said, and in a sentence he has banished the notion he lacks tactical awareness.   Something was wrong and he did something about it before it was too late.   Only one football writer called it right (alone from  the sour grape merchants from every other newspaper):  “Levein decided to ease the pressure on his defence by asking more questions of Motherwell’s.” (The same writer, too, was the only one to notice that Motherwell’s Pearson didn’t get his second yellow card after hacking down Stamp in the first half).   


While the question of player confidence most certainly is Craig Levein’s brief for which he should be held accountable,  it was hardly his fault that everyone suddenly starting playing rubbish – everyone, that is, apart from the imperious Phil Stamp whom  A Seer, A Sage  has correctly identified as Hearts’ Player of the Season.   No doubts now.   Stamp did it the Falkirk way: he got the ball, and he legged it up the park for all he was worth, intent on doing serious damage to the opposition’s goal difference.  And Simmonds it was who did exactly what McFarlane can’t (too slow) and what Severin doesn’t (too injured) – he sprinted fifty yards to be there for the cut-back and the ball was in the net long before anyone knew who’d scored.   Simmonds has a lot of talent but no application, but I think he relishes playing alongside someone out of the top drawer (and yes, sports fans, I do mean Phil Stamp).   The rest is up to Simmonds – if he wants it he can have it, and if he wants to throw it away, he can do that too.   We don’t really have a lot of say in the matter.    The manager is giving him every chance, and if a useful contribution and a winning goal can’t put a smile on the face of his oft-miserable coupon, then he might as well forget it – or join Dundee United with the rest of the parks-football geniuses.


A moment of rare quality – not just in this game, but any game – was Hearts’ first goal: a fast accurate pass from Severin found the ever-willing Wales, and his careful pass inside was weighted so perfectly that it required no break in stride for McKenna to collect it, drop the shoulder to create himself a yard of shooting space and unleash a shot right off the sweet spot that gave the Motherwell ‘keeper the chance to stand there with his hands on his hips in true foreign-goalie fashion (“You expect me to SAVE that?”)   It was so deadly efficient in build-up and execution you would have thought Germany had scored it in the last World Cup.    Difficult football made to look simple.    As opposed to that second half.   We win again.   I’m not complaining.