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Graham Rix <-auth Martin Greig auth-> Iain Brines
[B McLean 40]
19 of 025 Paul Hartley pen 90 L SPL A

Motherwell 1 - 1 Hearts

MARTIN GREIG at Fir Park November 28 2005

IT is all too easy to pick holes in Hearts' title credentials, but that is to ignore the bigger picture. On Saturday's showing, the Tynecastle side look anything but champions, but who does?

The results over the weekend simply summed up the delicious unpredictability of the season so far. This supposed stumble from Graham Rix's side moved them a point nearer the summit of the Premierleague after the leaders lost to bottom-placed Dunfermline at Celtic Park... you couldn't make it up.

With Celtic having regained the initiative in the league in recent weeks after a slow start under Gordon Strachan, this was where Hearts' season was supposed to start unravelling. A shallow squad would prove their undoing when the winter months came round; off-field upheaval would only compound the situation; their challenge for the title would have faded away by Christmas.

Yet there they are, a point behind Celtic and hanging in there grimly. It must be said, though, that that is about all Hearts are doing. The fluidity and incisiveness of George Burley's reign is gone, replaced with a tentativeness and failure to turn possession into goals; something which nearly proved their undoing. Indeed, it took a Paul Hartley penalty in the dying moments to salvage a point for Rix's side, who are at least able to cite injuries as a mitigating factor.

The head coach was quick to point out that their 4-5-1 formation in the first half, with young Calum Elliot up front on his own, was due to lack of striking personnel. Roman Bednar, he argued, had "been out for two months and trained for four days" and was capable of no more than the last half hour.

Edgaras Jankauskas, meanwhile, could have played "if it had been a cup final, but there was a possibility of him pulling his hamstring and being out for seven-eight weeks, something I couldn't risk." So what about Michal Pospisil, the former Czech under-21 striker, subbed at half time against Aberdeen last week, who was not even in Hearts' 18-man squad? Was he injured? "No," replied Rix, enigmatically. Was it a purely footballing decision then? "Yes."

The other riddle of Rix's reign so far involves their timid starts to games. Similar to last week's 1-1 draw at Pittodrie, Hearts surrendered the initiative early on and were nearly punished for it midway through the half. Richie Foran released Scott McDonald scampering down the inside left channel and the Australian cut inside to fire a low drive at goal. Craig Gordon, the Hearts goalkeeper, let it spill from his grasp but redeemed himself to block Fagan's close-range effort from the rebound.

However, Motherwell got the reward for their endeavours five minutes before half time. Brian Kerr's free-kick was laid off to Jim Hamilton on the right, who drove in a low cross which was converted by on-loan Rangers defender Brian McLean, for his first goal for the club.

Hearts had barely strung a decent move together by that point. "We're not getting into our stride. We're not picking up second balls and we're not on the front foot, but we'll need to get that sorted out as soon as possible," said Robbie Neilson, the Hearts full-back. "At the beginning of the season we were flying from the start of games, but I can't put my finger on it. I don't know if it's a mentality. It's got nothing to do with the manager, it's the players. We've got to get ourselves psyched up for the games."

Hearts emerged with renewed vigour after the break. Stephen Simmons replaced the ineffectual Julien Brellier at half-time and the midfielder was pushed up front alongside Elliot. They finally fashioned an opportunity in the 69th minute, though Rudi Skacel, who looks like a shadow of the player he was under Burley, could only clatter the ball off Alan McCormack at the back-post.

To be fair to the visitors, they continued to commit men to attack as Terry Butcher's side were forced more and more onto the back-foot. A couple of penalty claims came and went before McLean poleaxed Andy Webster in the area in the final minute. Hartley confidently stepped forward to slot past Graeme Smith, the Motherwell goalkeeper.

"It's two points that we threw away, but I can't fault their effort. Our unbeaten run is now five games so I can't be too hard to them," reflected a disappointed Butcher afterwards.

Taken from the Herald

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