Boyce’s penalty the difference as Hearts defeat Ayr
Hearts further extended their lead at the top of the Championship table, with a Liam Boyce penalty being all that separated the league leaders and Ayr United at Somerset Park. Jack Donnelly reports.
On a wet and windy night in Ayrshire, Hearts made sure their trip to the west was worthwhile, as they stifled Ayr to very little in a match that saw a Liam Boyce penalty separate the two sides.
After a comfortable and dominant performance against Alloa last weekend, Mark Kerr fielded an unchanged starting XI, with goalscorers Tom Walsh, Luke McCowan and Aaron Muirhead all involved once again. Ayr’s deadline day addition, midfielder Brett McGavin, started the match on the bench.
As for the visitors, neither one of Aaron McEneff nor Gervane Kastaneer would start, but Robbie Neilson did make changes to the side that eked out a win against Dunfermline. Jamie Walker, who scored the winner against the Pars, would come into the lineup as Euan Henderson dropped out, while Armand Gnanduillet was given a start at the expense of club captain Steven Naismith.
The Match Itself
Despite the reputation that Hearts have built for starting games strongly, Ayr would be the first to call a goalkeeper into action. McCowan was fouled by Stephen Kingsley deep into the Hearts half. Joe Chalmers floated the ball into the box, but Jack Baird’s flick on did very little to trouble Craig Gordon.
The first big talking point came after five minutes, as Liam Boyce looked to collect the ball in the Ayr penalty area, going to shoulder to shoulder with Muirhead. The pair went to ground and there were plenty of cries for a Hearts penalty, but referee Steven McLean waved away these claims.
Jamie Walker, scorer of Hearts’ only goal against Dunfermline, was obviously keen to get a second goal in as many games. The winger cut inside from the right and let fly from 20 yards, but his effort was powered well over Viljami Sinisalo’s goal.
The game was a considerably physical affair, with plenty of fouls committed by both sides, but Ayr were the first to receive a caution, as Andy Murdoch went up and over Andy Halliday in an effort to retrieve a high ball.
Hearts gave themselves a real fright after 15 minutes, when Gordon misplaced a pass and Walsh nipped in front of his man to attack the ball. He attempted to find the advancing Wright, but Mihai Popescu was there just in time to put the pass behind for a corner. Said corner was whipped in across the face of the goal, but neither an Ayr head nor a Hearts head was there to meet it.
Hearts saw a couple of half-chances fall their way as we passed the 20-minute mark – Gnanduillet’s fizzed cross from the right was well cleared by Muirhead, and Boyce’s effort in the 21st minute trickled along the ground, allowing Sinisalo to collect with ease.
There was very little to write home about for the remainder of the half, with both teams having half-chances at best. Hearts came closest when Popescu sprinted forward to get on the end of a deep free kick, but there was too much on the delivery for the defender and it went out for a goal kick.
Both Ayr and Hearts had a shout for a penalty towards the end of the half, however, but both claims were ignored by McLean.
The half-time whistle blew, and Ayr would have been happy at how well they were able to nullify Hearts. Both Boyce and Gnanduillet pose a physical threat, but the Ayr backline was able to stand firm against the Hearts forwards. On the other hand, Robbie Neilson will have gone in with plenty to say to his team, with the defence looking questionable on more than one occasion, as Ayr were happy to pressure their opponents high up the pitch. Still, the leaders held firm, with an intense second half expected.
The beginning of the second half went exactly as Hearts would have wanted – after deflecting a Hearts cross into Sinisalo’s gloves, Baird was adjudged to have handled the ball and Hearts were awarded a penalty. Boyce, the Championship’s top scorer, made no mistake and blasted the ball into the top left corner, giving Ayr everything to do for the rest of the half.
For the next 15 minutes, Hearts comfortably held on to the ball, waiting patiently to find an opening and being confident enough to recycle possession in defence whenever it was needed. Ayr had dropped off significantly from their first half performance, seemingly wary of a quick break from their opponents, committing less bodies forward.
Robbie Neilson was the first to introduce some fresh legs to the match, bringing both Gnanduillet and Gary Mackay-Steven off in place of new signings McEneff and Kastaneer in the 66th minute.
Ayr had managed to get a foot back in this game, with Smith managing to sneak past Kingsley in the corner. The forward crossed towards Wright, but the ball dropped just behind the Ayr striker and Hearts attempted to break quickly. Walker collected the ball 30 yards from goal and fired from range once again but, like his earlier effort, this did not pose Sinisalo with any problems.
A nice passing move saw Ayr break down the left in the 70th minute, with Smith cutting inside and passing to the advancing Chalmers, but the midfielder’s effort was blocked on the way through, with Gordon collecting under no pressure.
Mark Kerr desperately required some creativity from his side and after first introducing Michael Moffat for Walsh, Kerr brough Brett McGavin on for his debut in the 78th minute, replacing Chalmers in midfield.
The final 10 minutes played out with very little of note, bar a couple of skewed attempts from Smith and Kastaneer respectively. In stoppage time, substitute Mark McKenzie hit a low shot into the Hearts box, with a maroon shirt sliding in to block the effort – subsequent claims for a penalty were waved away.
After three additional minutes, McLean brought the tie to a close and Hearts’ lead at the top of the Championship table was extended to 12 points over second-placed Dunfermline.
With so many shouts for penalties throughout the 90 minutes, the assembled journalists were keen for Mark Kerr’s thoughts on the one that put Hearts ahead, with the Ayr manager saying:
“The way I saw it was a hand in the box, and that’s the way the rules are written, it just seems to be any hand in the box and it’s a penalty. It’s just hard to take, we could have taken something from the game.”
Coming into this fixture, Ayr were undefeated at home in the league this season, winning three and drawing three. Kerr found the way they lost their unbeaten run hard to take:
“We didn’t want to lose our unbeaten run at home, so that was hard to take in the manner we did. I don’t think we were ever cut open tonight, we got into good areas, but we’ve just got to go on Tuesday and Saturday and keep the spirit we’ve got.”
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson had absolutely no trepidation as to whether his team should have had a penalty:
“I know people talk about different rules but to me, if the ball gets delivered from 40 yards and it hits the boy’s hand, it’s a penalty. Doesn’t matter if it comes off his thigh first or his toe first… if it’s hit from two or three yards away, it’s a different story.”
Neilson was, perhaps, a bit relieved to have gotten the victory in this encounter, especially with their position at the top of the table:
“It’s massive. People wondered why the BBC took Hearts away at Ayr United on a Friday night – because they expect us to get beat.
“We’ve shown we’re good enough to handle that and get the result and what that does is it puts pressure on the teams tomorrow. They’ve got to catch up.”
Hearts have a second consecutive Friday night fixture to look forward to, as they return to Tynecastle to take on Morton, while Ayr are set to play out their rescheduled clash with Dundee at Dens Park this coming Tuesday.