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<-Srce <-Type Scotsman ------ Report Type-> Srce->
Craig Levein <-auth None auth-> Douglas McDonald
Webster Andy McCann Austin [G McSwegan 31]
3 of 005 ----- L SPL A

Euro destiny still within Hearts' grasp

Kilmarnock 1
McSwegan (28)
Hearts 0

IF Hearts boss Craig Levein had been told at the start of the season that his team would be four points clear in the race for Europe with just three games remaining, he would have been more than satisfied.

Hence the reason why he should not be too despondent following Saturday’s defeat to Euro rivals Kilmarnock.

Okay, the Gorgie outfit had gone into the clash seven points clear of Jim Jefferies’ side and with the opportunity to clinch third place with victory at Rugby Park.

A draw would even have been a good enough result, Killie then having to win their three remaining matches, two of which are against either half of the Old Firm.

But as has been proved on many an occasion, it is one thing having the finishing line in sight and quite another to actually break the tape.

Thousands of fans had made the trip west in the hope of roaring their heroes into Europe but it wasn’t to be on this occasion with former Tynecastle striker Gary McSwegan’s first-half header keeping his side in with a chance of overhauling Hearts.

It was a missed opportunity for the Capital side. But, although touted by many to struggle this season, the fact of the matter is that Levein’s outfit is still in pole position for Europe, with the situation very much in their own hands entering the closing stretch.

They will naturally be frustrated but they struggled to get a grip on proceedings from the start, Hearts’ first attempt at goal coming after 53 minutes courtesy of Phil Stamp’s deflected free-kick.

The match had been an eagerly anticipated affair and with so much at stake - and so many former Hearts connections in the home ranks - it was always going to be a keenly-contested encounter.

For such occasions it is important to have a sensible referee in the middle but unfortunately that is not an adjective which can be used to describe Dougie McDonald’s display.

The whistle-happy official completely lost the plot, particularly in the second half, when he made six bookings as well as sending off both Andy Webster and Austin McCann, the full-back’s straight red for a tackle on substitute Paul Di Giacomo on the far touchline particularly puzzling.

The crime count from the game read two red cards and ten yellow cards - five bookings and the two dismissals coming in a crazy last 12 minutes - and what the SFA’s referee supervisor at the game must have thought of it all is anyone’s guess.

Stamp, who looked set to receive his second yellow card of the match in the second half until McDonald changed his mind, described the official’s performance as "comical".

But it was no laughing matter for the Jambos, who will be without Webster and McCann for this weekend’s trip to Parkhead - and the former Middlesbrough star will also now be forced to sit out the last two potentially crucial games of the campaign having gone through the disciplinary points threshold for the second time this season.

"It was an unbelievable display by the referee," said Stamp. "I don’t think there was a spell of two or three minutes when he didn’t book somebody. The last ten minutes was just comical with cards coming out all over the place.

"Since I have been here in Scotland the refs have been okay but that was the worst performance I have witnessed in my career.

"It was terrible. He looked desperate to send anyone off. I’ll probably get in trouble with the SFA but I’m not bothered."

The visitors were rarely seen as an attacking force in the first half, although on the one occasion they did threaten the Killie goal in the 17th minute, Graham Weir was sent sprawling in the box by Gordon Marshall as he tried to round the keeper. As clear a penalty as you are likely to see? Not in Mr McDonald’s eyes.

And to rub salt into Hearts’ wounds, the teenage striker was hurt in the challenge and unable to come out for the second half.

McSwegan was clearly well pumped up for the clash and looked like a man desperate to prove a point against his former club.

He clashed with Steven Pressley and Webster after just five minutes to set the temperatures rising and was then denied by a good save from Tepi Moilanen as he angled in a shot at the Finn’s near post after Andy McLaren’s flick.

Two minutes after Weir’s penalty claim, Stamp was sent tumbling in the area but again no foul was given. As the ball broke upfield Scott Severin was caught by Garry Hay and after the foul had been given in favour of the visitors, Stamp went in recklessly on the Kilmarnock ace, sparking another flare-up as McSwegan got needlessly involved.

Both went into the book and even at that early stage it seemed unlikely that the full complement of players would last the 90 minutes.

What proved to be the winning goal arrived with 28 minutes gone. Steve Fulton released McLaren down the right and as McCann lost his footing, the winger swung in a deep cross where McSwegan outjumped Alan Maybury to head the ball back across Moilanen and into the far corner of the net.

Had his Lottery numbers come up on Saturday night, it’s doubtful if his celebrations could have been more animated.

The hosts had by the far the better of the opening period and Moilanen had to race off his line to deny James Fowler after Alan Mahood had sent him clear of the Hearts defence.

On the stroke of half-time, Webster appeared to be tugged back by Chris Innes in the area but again the appeals fell on deaf ears.

McLaren missed a couple of great opportunities moments after the restart to extend his side’s lead, his miss in front of goal from Hay’s pass quite remarkable.

Jean-Louis Valois was withdrawn on the hour mark with Steven Boyack entering the fray and the substitute’s first touch almost brought an equaliser with Marshall saving his shot well at his left-hand post.

Levein was then given a ticking off by McDonald for something he said before Webster was booked for a tug at Hay in the 67th minute.

Marshall had been causing his defence as many problems as the Hearts attack with some strange decision making but he produced a brilliant save with 20 minutes remaining to again deny Boyack.

McLaren then had a penalty appeal waved aside after he went down under a challenge from Pressley before "Comical Dougie" took centre stage.

New Scotland cap Webster was handed a second yellow for a foul on McSwegan 12 minutes from time. In the 85th minute an early bath looked assured for Stamp after a foul on Freddy Dindeleux, McDonald reaching for his cards again.

But he mysteriously changed his mind after realising he would have to send the midfielder off.

No such luck for McCann, though, who was left stunned by the referee’s decision to show him a straight red for a late tackle on Paul Di Giacomo on the far touchline. And when skipper Pressley went to inquire about the dismissal, he was promptly shown a yellow card.

"I was aggrieved at some of the referee’s decisions," said Levein. "The ridiculous thing about Graham Weir’s penalty incident was that not only do we not get a penalty but he gets injured in the challenge.

"So we lose a player and don’t get a penalty. We were doubly punished for the referee’s first mistake. But I lost count at 97.

"Some of these games you win, some you lose. But I was really proud of my players, who all did their best."

Once the dust had settled, it was a vital three points for Kilmarnock - but it’s still advantage Hearts in the quest for Europe.

Team line-ups

Kilmarnock: Marshall, Hay, Dindeleux, Canero, Innes, Fowler, Fulton, Mahood, McDonald, McLaren (Boyd 88), McSwegan (Di Giacomo 88). Subs not used: Stewart, Mclaughlin, Murray.

Hearts: Moilanen, McKenna, Pressley, Maybury, McCann, Webster, MacFarlane (Wales 82), Severin, Stamp, Valois (Boyack 60), Weir (Kirk 46). Subs not used: McKenzie, Neilson.

Taken from the Scotsman

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