Lockdown Football on the TV: Ayr United 0-1 Heart of Midlothian

Friday 05th February 2021
0 – 1
Kickoff 05/02/2021 19:45

Scottish Championship
Friday 5 February 2021
Stephen McCartney reports (watching on TV)

HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN extended their lead at the top of the Scottish Championship to 12 points after grinding out a 1-0 win at fifth-placed Ayr United.

A controversial penalty, rifled home by 29-year-old striker Liam Boyce, three minutes into the second half ensured they became the first visiting side to win at Somerset Park this season.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson told BBC Scotland: “I’m delighted. It wasn’t the best of games.  I don’t think they’ll be a highlights package for that anyway, that’s for sure.

“I knew coming tonight with the conditions, especially in the first-half, it was going to be very difficult to play any football at all, hence the reason we went a little bit more direct.

“But I thought second half, even though the game wasn’t great, we were quite comfortable and we had a number of chances and we’re pleased to get the goal.”

On the decision that earnt the title-favourites their 12th league victory of the season that has given them 36 points from 15 league games, Neilson said: “I think it was (a penalty).  I think you can see the reaction of the players’ at the time. It was quite easy to see.  When it comes in you realise it was a handball. I think it’s come of his leg first but his hand is in that position, so it’s been given.

“If think if the ball gets played in from 40-yards away and it hits your hand then it’s a handball. If it’s played in from two or three feet away, it’s a different story but the ball gets delivered in, it’s slipped off his knee and it hits his hand, so for me that’s a penalty.”

However, Ayr United started the game well, fresh from their 4-1 home win over now bottom side Alloa Athletic last weekend.

Just 98 seconds in, Ayr midfielder Joe Chalmers swung in a deep free-kick towards the far post where centre-half Jack Baird sent his downward header straight into the hands of goalkeeper Craig Gordon.

Heart of Midlothian, who finished the game with a 4-2-3-1 formation, having started with a 4-4-2, took just over 20 minutes to create their first opening.

Boyce cut in from the right wing and beat two defenders to reach the penalty area but his weak left-footed angled drive was easily gathered by Ayr United goalkeeper Viljami Sinisalo at his near post.

A driving run from Ayr central midfielder Cammy Smith saw him unleash a left-footed angled drive from 25-yards, which flashed past a diving goalkeeper and just past the foot of the far post.

Heart of Midlothian winger, Jamie Walker, tested Sinisalo from a left-wing corner, which was dipping towards the top near corner, before the stopper used both of his hands to palm the ball up before the home side cleared their lines.

Central midfielder Andy Irving swung in a lovely left-footed free-kick from midfield, which was heading towards two of his team-mates, making runs towards the far post, but central-defender Mihai Popescu slid in to poke his shot past the near post from a tight angle from three-yards just past the half-hour mark.

Neilson admitted: “First half was tough, it was old style difficult football, bang it long, second balls, flick-ons. It wasn’t the most entertaining but we knew just to get in at half-time and second half we thought it would come in our favour a bit more because the wind was behind us and that’s the way the game played out.”

Neilson was clearly a frustrated figure in the away dug-out but he rallied his troops during the interval and notched the victory, albeit in controversial circumstances, with only 136 seconds on the clock.

Central midfielder Andy Halliday swung the ball in from the right and Boyce tried to flick the ball on with his head inside the box.  However, referee Steven McLean pointed to the spot despite seeing that the ball bounced off Baird’s right thigh before glancing off his outstretched left arm before the ball was gathered by his goalkeeper.

Boyce rifled his right-footed penalty into the roof of the net, just left of centre, with Sinisalo diving low to his right.

Neither side could create a real chance on target at a cold, wet and windy Friday night, with both goalkeeper’s hardly called upon.

Walker’s right-footed free-kick dipped over the top of the far post just before the hour-mark before the away side switched formation after bringing on a double substitution with 66 minutes on the clock.

Ayr United were disappointing in attack.  They created an opening with 20 minutes left when Smith cut into the penalty area down the left but chose the wrong option and his square pass was intercepted by Irving, who poked the ball back to Gordon, who comfortably picked the ball up.

Heart of Midlothian created a late chance to double their lead when substitute striker Steven Naismith was released down the right but fellow sub Gervane Kastaneer skied his volley over the crossbar.

Ayr United manager Mark Kerr told BBC Scotland: “I thought we started the game really well.  I thought we didn’t have problems first-half.  I thought we got into their half and kept them there for periods of time and I thought we put a lot of balls into the box.  Probably one or two, I’ve seen them back, didn’t drop for us.

“Just disappointed in the end with the penalty. I’ve had a quick look at it. The feedback is, it’s never a penalty, which I can take but I just don’t like the way people behave on the sidelines that try to influence referees and then they get their reward.

“If it’s not a penalty, it’s really hard to take because there’s not much in the game at all there. It’s not right, the way people behave there, which maybe influenced the referee. He’s got a decision to make but for me it’s not (a penalty).”

Reflecting on the performance from The Honest Men, Kerr said: “We could’ve used the ball a bit better and used Andre Wright (his big target-man) and go through him a lot more.  I thought we opened the game up fine. We made the passes we wanted to make and we got people in and around him and I thought we picked up a lot of balls on the front foot in the first-half.

“The last few minutes was pretty hard to watch sometimes because we didn’t get to play and we held things on but I think that’s just the way the game had ended, being one down against the wind doesn’t help.

“We wanted to get something from it but I think it shows the shape is working and we’re solid and we’ll score goals, so I’m quite positive on that.

“If you lose two or three goals after that (goal) we would feel a lot worse. We stayed strong and we stayed in the game and we could’ve got back into it at the end.”

Ayr United remain in fifth-place in the table with 17 points from 14 games and travel to Dundee – the side immediately above them in the table – on Tuesday night.

Neilson takes his side to Dumfries for next Friday’s televised game to play Queen of the South, a side in the bottom three on 14 points from 13 games, six points clear of the bottom side.

With 10 teams in the division, two of the division’s part-time teams in Arbroath and Alloa Athletic are sitting in the bottom two places, while Neilson’s men are well clear of nearest challengers, Dunfermline Athletic, who travel to Arbroath tomorrow.

Neilson has to lead his side back to the Scottish Premiership at the first attempt, in his second spell in charge at Tynecastle Park.

The 40-year-old former Dundee United boss said: “We knew before the game, coming to this, a Friday night game, if you can get the three points that gap between everyone else, it puts massive pressure on the teams tomorrow and teams have to catch up on us as well, so from our perspective it was a great Friday night and we can go and watch the games tomorrow.”

Ayr United:  Viljami Sinisalo, Michael Miller (Mark McKenzie 85), Corrie Ndaba, Andrew Murdoch, Jack Baird, Aaron Muirhead, Tom Walsh (Michael Moffatt 74), Joe Chalmers (Brett McGavin 79), Andre Wright, Cammy Smith, Luke McCowan.
Subs: Patrick Reading, Sam Roscoe, David Zanatta, Ellis Hare-Reid

Booked: Andrew Murdoch 11, Corrie Ndaba 43, Aaron Muirhead 83

Heart of Midlothian:  Craig Gordon, Michael Smith, Stephen Kingsley, Andy Halliday, Craig Halkett, Mihai Popescu, Gary Mackay-Steven (Gervane Kastaneer 66), Andy Irving (Steven Naismith 79), Armand Gnanduillet (Aaron McEneff 66), Liam Boyce, Jamie Walker.
Subs: Aidy White, Peter Haring, Christoph Berra, Ross Stewart

Goal: Liam Boyce 48 (penalty)

Booked: Robbie Neilson (manager) 43

Attendance: 0
Referee:  Mr Steven McLean
Assistants: Mr Drew Kirkland & Mr Colin Drummond
Fourth Official: Mr Matthew Macdermid