Hearts’ unbeaten record goes as Pars topple Jambos

Hearts suffered their first defeat of the season on Friday night, as Dunfermline ran out as 2-1 winners at East End Park, putting them at the top of the Championship ahead of Robbie Neilson’s side. Jamie Mcintosh reports.

Two early strikes in the second half from Dominic Thomas and Euan Murray were enough to see Dunfermline’s unbeaten start to the season extend further. Photo Credit – Jamie Mcintosh

Five weeks ago, when Hearts faced Dundee, it was considered to be the clash between the projected top two in the Championship this season. Hearts won that game 6-2, which led to many looking elsewhere for Hearts’ main challengers to the Championship crown. 

Step forward Dunfermline Athletic. The Pars won all four of their Betfred Cup games and have made an unbeaten start in the league, winning three and drawing one of their opening four games. 

The Pars’ impressive start to the season has led many people to claim they will be the closest challengers to Hearts this season – throw in the managerial narrative between good friends Robbie Neilson and Stevie Crawford (who was Neilson’s assistant during his first spell as Hearts manager) and you have the makings of a Friday night classic. 

As for team news, Dunfermline made just the one change from their last league game against Ayr United, with Ryan Dow replacing Fraser Murray. 

As for the visitors, Liam Boyce and Michael Smith had question marks hovering over them regarding a starting spot, having both started for Northern Ireland on Wednesday. However, both were named in the starting XI. There was no sign of Peter Haring or Josh Ginnelly in the squad, with there being an opportunity for Elliott Frear to impress in the absence of the latter. 

It was, unsurprisingly, a fast-paced opening to the game, with Hearts seeing the majority of the ball as you would expect. However, Dunfermline were pressing high and weren’t showing Hearts the respect that other teams have this season.

The first chance came for the hosts when Kyle Turner curled an effort over from the edge of the box. It came after striker Declan McManus had won the first real aerial battle against Hearts defender Mihai Popescu. This chance was to set the tone for the evening as McManus bullied the Hearts central defensive pairing of Popescu and Craig Halkett. 

Hearts then had their first chance of the game in the 13th minute, when the aforementioned Popescu rose highest to head an Elliott Frear free kick against the bar – a huge chance for the defender to open his Hearts account.

Dunfermline weren’t making it easy for Hearts to keep the ball and an uncharacteristic error from keeper Craig Gordon gifted the hosts a corner just a minute later, which ex Hibernian midfielder Steven Whittaker almost converted from. The error from Gordon epitomised the Dunfermline game plan – pressure the away side into making mistakes for the Pars to capitalise on.

Hearts were awarded a free kick in a very dangerous position after a hand ball midway through the first half. Stephen Kingsley scored from a very similar position against Dundee and almost accomplished the same feat, however the full-back curled his effort just wide, much to the relief of Owain Fon Williams. 

Olly Lee scored twice last time out at East Fife and almost continued his goalscoring run after good work up the Hearts left in the 32nd minute, however his long-distance effort flew just over. 

Steven Naismith would have been delighted to see Scotland qualify for their first major tournament since 1998 and will be looking to try catch Steve Clarke’s eye between now and next summer. A well worked corner routine almost paid dividends to his and his side’s cause just before the break, when Lee picked him out 12 yards away from goal. However, the striker scuffed his shot and it was comfortable for Fon Williams to collect the chance. The referee blew his whistle shortly afterwards, bringing the first half to a close.

A fairly even first half, which I would imagine that both managers would have been relatively satisfied with. Hearts had the better opportunities, but Dunfermline were working very hard to make it as difficult as possible for the visitors.

Dunfermline were dually rewarded for their first half efforts five minutes into the second half, when Dom Thomas worked a half yard for himself and his deflected effort left Craig Gordon with no chance. Robbie Neilson reacted to that goal by bringing on Jamie Walker for the once again uninspiring Elliott Frear. 

The change had barely been made when Dunfermline doubled their lead five minutes later. Pars skipper Euan Murray made an unmarked run into the Hearts box and powered a header home at the near post, the centre back’s sixth goal of the season and Dunfermline’s second of the game.

Hearts looked rattled and considering they are a side who have, up until this point, had most things go their own way this season, they were really going to have their determination tested in the remaining 30 minutes. 

Two bookings in quick succession for Halliday and Walker showed the visitors were starting to lose their temper, as Dunfermline continued to be organised at the back and clever with the ball in possession. 

Liam Boyce scored from a Michael Smith cross on Wednesday in Belfast and that combination almost gave Hearts the goal they desperately needed on the hour mark, however Fon Williams made a smart save to deny the striker. 

After hitting the bar once in the first half, Mihai Popescu saw another golden opportunity to open his Hearts account, but the Romanian defender saw his effort crash off the bar for the second time, which was perhaps an indication of just the sort of luck that Hearts were having in this fixture.

Dunfermline had a golden chance to secure the three points when Craig Halkett cleared the ball straight to Kerr McInroy – fortunately for Halkett, the Dunfermline midfielder’s shot was deflected behind for a corner. 

Hearts should have pulled a goal back when a fortunate ricochet sent Naismith through on goal, but instead of taking the shot on, he tried to square it to substitute Jordan Roberts and the pass was cut out, with the chance left wanting. A really poor decision from a man with Naismith’s experience. 

Hearts were looking tired and Dunfermline were well in control as we entered the final 15 minutes and the result didn’t look in any doubt from where I was sitting. Andy Halliday and Olly Lee had struggled with the intensity of this one from the start and the latter was replaced after 75 minutes by Andy Irving. 

The scoreline somehow stayed at 2-0 when an in-swinging free kick missed everyone in the middle and was miraculously kept out by Gordon, before the rebound was headed wide by Lewis Mayo.

Hearts eventually got the lifeline they desperately needed when Andy Irving’s corner was glanced home by Stephen Kingsley. However, they failed to carve out a clear-cut chance for an equaliser in the six remaining minutes of the second half.

The full time whistle sounded and Dunfermline got the three points that their effort and hard work deserved. The Pars remain unbeaten and now move four points clear of Hearts in second. 

Dunfermline manager Stevie Crawford will be delighted to get one over his old pal Robbie Neilson but refused to get carried away with the three points:

“The Championship can be a very unforgiving league – within a couple of games you can be at the other end of the table. I’ve learnt that from experience, we’ll go away and enjoy the weekend, but Hearts are still strong favourites for the league in my eyes.” 

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson seemed composed after the match, despite Dunfermline inflicting his first competitive defeat in his second spell at Tynecastle:

“We’re disappointed not to win the game, but you’ve got to credit Dunfermline, they played very well. We had our chances, hit the bar a couple of times and had the one on one with Naisy. It’s part and parcel of football, we’ve managed to win the first eight games of our season but eventually we were going to lose, it’s all about how we react to that now against Alloa on Tuesday.” 

Hearts goalscorer Stephen Kingsley was disappointed with his side’s performance but is already looking forward to the chance to put things right on Tuesday against Alloa. 

“We’re lucky that we have a game as soon as Tuesday where we can try put things right, we’ll go away over the weekend and try see what we did wrong and try implement it on Tuesday against Alloa.” 

Hearts play back to back games against Alloa in the upcoming week, hosting the Wasps on Tuesday in the league before travelling to the Indodrill Stadium next Saturday in the last 16 of the Betfred Cup.

Without a league game midweek, Dunfermline can set their sights on next weekend’s Betfred Cup clash with fellow Championship side Arbroath, with the Pars hoping that their good early form can take them into the quarter finals of the competition.

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