Mackay-Steven shines on Trophy Day
A Gary Mackay-Steven brace helped Hearts to a 3-0 victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle in their final home game of the season. Jamie McIntosh reports.
It was trophy day at Tynecastle, as Hearts welcomed Inverness for their final home game in what has been an easily forgotten season in Scottish football’s second tier.
Having officially clinched the title a fortnight ago when other results went in Hearts’ favour, all the talk since then has surrounded a supporter-led campaign to ‘leave it on the stand” -“it” being the trophy.
Hearts released a statement yesterday, revealing that “captain Steven Naismith will lift the trophy- respectfully and to honour the players’ achievement.”
Hearts boss Robbie Neilson made just the one change to the side that started the dismal 0-0 draw in Greenock on Tuesday, Gary Mackay-Steven returned to the starting 11 in place of Euan Henderson. 16-year-old Finlay Pollock was named amongst the Hearts substitutes, the midfielder has been with Hearts since the age of nine.
Despite all the talk about matters off the field, the game was a big one for the visitors.
The Highlanders had two men sent off in their midweek draw with Dundee. Scott Allardice’s appeal was successful, however Brad McKay’s was not, so he missed out through suspension and was replaced by Cameron Harper. There was also a start for Miles Storey, who took the place of Shane Sutherland in the second of manager Neil McCann’s two changes.
With Inverness sitting in fifth spot in the league table, just a point outside the playoff places. They really needed to win at Tynecastle to keep their playoff hopes alive and they hadn’t won in Gorgie since 2013.
SFA Chief Executive Neil Doncaster arrived at Tynecastle shortly before Inverness formed a guard of honour, as champions Hearts took to the Tynecastle pitch for the final time this season.
Considering Inverness had much more to play for at this stage in the season it came as no surprise to see them start the brighter of the two sides.
An early effort was deflected behind by a maroon shirt and from the resulting corner, Allardice picked out on loan Hibs midfielder Scott Allan, who curled a shot over from just inside the box, a golden opportunity for the visitors from a well worked training ground routine.
Up the other end, Armand Gnanduillet saw a far post header saved by Mark Ridgers, before Mackay-Steven received the ball on the right-hand side, the winger cut inside and fired a low shot into the bottom corner past the outstretched arm of Ridgers to give Hearts the lead, after just six minutes.
Just three minutes later, Hearts doubled their lead. Liam Boyce found Aaron McEneff in the penalty box. He took a good first touch with his back to goal, before twisting round and firing into the bottom corner, via the aid of a deflection.
Neil McCann looked shellshocked on the touchline. His side had started well, but found themselves 2-0 down inside 10 minutes, in what you could only describe as a must-win match for the Highlanders.
Inverness were starting to come back into the game, but their defence was breached again on the half hour mark. A Gnanduillet flick on caused confusion between Robbie Deas and Ridgers, then Mackay-Steven nipped in-between the pair and flicked the ball over Ridgers and into the empty net.
A first half brace for the previously low on confidence midfielder and Hearts 3-0 up and cruising on trophy day.
The home side were forced into a change just before the break, Peter Haring departed with an injury and was replaced by Andy Irving, which put a slight dampener on a ruthless first half from the home side.
Referee Bobby Madden brought the first half to an end just a minute later with Hearts three goals up at the half time interval.
Inverness captain Sean Welsh was perhaps fortunate not to see red after a late challenge on Boyce. Madden deemed a yellow card sufficient, which provoked an angry reaction from Robbie Neilson. McCann didn’t take kindly to Neilson’s comments and after a touchline altercation with Neilson, McCann was sent to the stands.
The second half had a training ground feel to it, with very few chances at either end. Inverness surprisingly substituted their top scorer Nikolay Todorov, meanwhile Steven Naismith replaced Gnanduillet for the home side.
Hearts should’ve added a fourth after 72 minutes, Mackay-Steven was again involved, skipping away from David Carson and sliding the ball across goal for the Hearts skipper Naismith. Unfortunately for the Scotland international, his effort came back off the post.
Hearts Academy graduate Finlay Pollock was introduced with 10 minutes to play in place of Mackay-Steven. A much better showing from GMS, who should take plenty confidence from that performance.
The final ten minutes brought about no more goalmouth action in what was a very one-sided affair, with other results going against them, Inverness were now unable to finish in the playoff positions.
Robbie Neilson expressed his happiness with his side’s display.
“I was delighted. It was one of three really big games. The first home game sets the tone, the remembrance weekend game is really important to the club and the last home game sets the tone for the summer.”
“It felt like a Premiership game, so credit to Inverness. They came here to win. Sometimes this year teams just come to sit in, and they didn’t do that, so I thought it made for quite an enjoyable game.”
Hearts fans may have had concerns that Peter Haring could face another spell on the treatment table, but Neilson was quick to downplay his departure.
“He’ll be fine. He just tweaked his hip, so he’ll be okay. Nothing to do with his previous injury, which was his groin.”
A disappointed Neil McCann said he felt disappointed for his players and for the club and admits his side just didn’t perform on the day.
“I thought we started brightly, then we got done by a goal and then a quick second. Then I thought we got back into it a wee bit, but then miscommunication at the back killed us for the third.”
“I’m really disappointed for them. I feel sorry for them, because they’ve been so good since I’ve come in, a wee while ago we were sitting second bottom and everybody was saying we were struggling, but we got better, we just didn’t perform today though and ultimately we’ve come up short.”
On his red card:
“I just lost my cool, I let the side down by receiving the red card, I don’t take defeat well, so I think it was purely frustration. I’ve came in here to do a job and I take that personally, but I think I just let my emotions get too much for me.”
Hearts were presented with the Championship trophy shortly after full time. The Jambos travel to Raith Rovers on the final day of the season, meanwhile Inverness host relegation threatened Ayr United.