Naismith, Henderson and a Mackay-Steven brace ensure Hearts finish their season strong
Raith Rovers were unable to hold on to second place in the Scottish Championship after losing 4-0 to Hearts at Stark’s Park. Jamie McIntosh reports.
Hearts travelled to Stark’s Park for their final match of the season to take on Raith Rovers, who only needed to match or better Dundee’s result to secure second spot in the league table.
Dundee kept their hopes of second place alive by beating Raith last weekend, and Rovers boss John McGlynn made three changes for the visit of his former club. Fernandy Mendy, Lewis Vaughan and Adam King replaced Gozie Ugwu, Kai Kennedy and the suspended Dylan Tait.
Hearts will be glad to see the back of this season, but they managed to achieve promotion, which was the main objective for the season.
Manager Robbie Neilson made one change to the side that comfortably defeated Inverness at Tynecastle last weekend, with Euan Henderson replacing Armand Gnanduillet, in the hope of improving Hearts dismal away record (Hearts came into this match without a win in their last six away matches).
There was also no sign of Christophe Berra in the Hearts squad – this would’ve been the defender’s last game for the Edinburgh club, after he signed a two-year deal with Raith Rovers earlier in the year.
The home side started the brighter of the two teams – Jamie Gullan and Vaughan spurned half chances, before the visitors went in front with their first chance of the match.
A well-worked move on the right saw Gary Mackay-Steven in behind the Raith backline. The winger curled his effort around Jamie MacDonald to give his side the lead after just 10 minutes.
Both sides had adopted a back three system in this match – Hearts were playing 3-4-3 with GMS and Henderson either side of Liam Boyce, meanwhile Rovers had gone with a 3-5-2 and were trying, but struggling, to dominate possession with an extra man in midfield.
Andy Halliday came close to doubling the visitors’ lead midway through the first half, after Henderson was wiped out by Mendy, but his left-footed freekick came back into play off the bar.
Hearts were on top, but Raith were always going to get chances and when a wicked delivery was sent in from the right, Brad Spencer seemed certain to equalise five minutes before half time. However, the midfielder fluffed his lines and sent his effort well over the bar from close range.
John McGlynn made a change at half time. After being booked, Mendy was replaced by Dan Armstrong, as Rovers switched to a back four in search of a route back into the match.
Usually during games that involve Hearts, the goalkeeper grabbing the headlines is Craig Gordon – not on this occasion, however. Boyce slipped in Henderson and MacDonald dived at his feet to deny him, before prodding the rebound away from danger to keep his side in the game, just five minutes into the second half.
Hearts were forced into a change 10 minutes into the second half. Michael Smith was replaced by Andy Irving, with Peter Haring dropping into the back three.
Hearts did eventually kill the game off after 57 minutes, as Halliday picked up a nice position on the left. He slipped the ball through for Henderson who did the rest and ensured Hearts would be victorious on their final outing of the season.
Things went from bad to worse for the hosts. Iain Davidson was adjudged to have brought down Henderson and David Munro had a think about it before pointing to the spot and brandishing a red card in the direction of the Rovers defender. Craig Halkett stepped up and went for power, but saw his effort deflect off the bar and over.
Hearts won 4-0 at Stark’s Park earlier in the season and a similar scoreline now looked probable with the visitors 2-0 up and a man to the good, as the game entered the final 25 minutes.
The third inevitably arrived after 69 minutes. A cut back from the left was smashed on to the bar by Boyce and Rovers failed to clear their lines, which allowed Steven Naismith to toe-poke home from close range, on what may well turn out to be his last game, with the forward believed to be considering retirement.
The fourth arrived four minutes later. A well-worked move saw Boyce unselfishly square the ball across for Mackay-Steven, who grabbed his second and Hearts’ fourth, making it four goals in two games for the winger.
Young Findlay Pollock was given the final 15 minutes, replacing Aaron McEneff, before Mackay-Steven nearly bagged his hat-trick, but Rovers’ Man of the Match, MacDonald, denied him.
4-0 was the way it finished, which sees Hearts end the season with five consecutive clean sheets and a final tally of 57 points.
Dundee defeated Queen of the South, which sees them jump above Raith into second spot, leaving the Kirkcaldy side with a tricky Fife Derby to get through before the winner takes on Dundee.
Rovers have little time to dwell on tonight’s result, with the first leg of their playoff with Dunfermline taking place on Tuesday at East End Park.
As for Hearts, it was a strong performance to end the season and they can now commence their inevitable summer overhaul ahead of their Premiership return next season.
Post Match Comments
Hearts boss Robbie Neilson was delighted to finish the season with a win and a good performance:
“Absolutely delighted to finish the season like that, such a dominant performance against a team who were sitting second in the league. The last couple of games we’ve played teams who have come out to win the game and that makes a big difference to us.”
On the summer window:
“There will be a few changes to that team that started tonight, there’ll be some boys that aren’t here for us next season, but there will be a few that’ll come in as well, but we think we’ve got a system that the players can play in, but we’ll look a bit more in the post season.”
Raith manager John McGlynn admitted that the result was a tough pill to swallow:
“It’s a sore one actually, I thought we shot ourselves in the foot all night. The goals we lose in the second half were embarrassing, from the point of view that we had opportunities to clear the ball, that’s silly football and we got punished against a very good Hearts side.”
On the red card:
“That was when the game turned for us. I’ve not seen it back yet, but obviously we’ll take a look at it and potentially take a look at appealing if we think it’s worth it.”
On the quick turnaround for the Dunfermline game:
“We’ll come back in tomorrow now. We would’ve taken this opportunity at the start of the season. Yes, it’s a sore one, but we need to dust ourselves down and put it on the back burner, everything stacks up for it to be a really good game. Quarter-final, big derby, great – bring it on.”