IF Hearts spent much of last season playing like a snail making its way through treacle, then in this win over Dundee United they looked more like a swarm of wasps high on a particularly cheap brand of energy drink.
For 70 minutes, there was a swagger to the Jam Tarts at Tannadice. With the flick of Gary Mackay-Steven’s left foot or the turbocharged running of John Souttar, they impressed to see off Dundee United and end the day second in the Premiership table.
Goals from Liam Boyce and Armand Gnanduillet goals meant it was the first time since November 2018 they have occupied such heady heights in the top flight but, much like the glory days of old, they had a string of fine Craig Gordon saves to thank for that.
The addition of Ben Woodburn to an attack already boasting Mackay-Steven and Ginelly seems like a fair way for Robbie Neilson to shake off that comparison of last season.
Starting the day on the right in place of Ginelly, the Welshman showed enough signs of life in his hour, dropping deep to link with the oft-rampaging John Souttar one minute and swapping places with Liam Boyce the next, to suggest there will be more to come from the Liverpool loanee in the weeks ahead.
But it was Mackay-Steven who was giving Dundee United’s defence palpitations in the opening minutes. He’d send the blood pressure in Tannadice rising soon enough but he began the day with a clever combination with Peter Haring to almost tee-up Boyce before, less than a minute later, he twisted away from his marker and sent the ball across for the Northern Irishman. On both occasions, however, the home side managed to clear the danger.
For much of the half, the pressure from Hearts was incessant. Buoyed by a vocal backing, maroon shirts – be they on Souttar, Mackay-Steven, or even Beni Baningime – dashed towards Trevor Carson’s goal with worrying regularity for Tam Courts. But just when it seemed United would hold out for the break, Ryan Edwards took his finger out the well and let the water run.
They’d been warned a moment before when Haring sent a free header a yard past the post but, implausibly, they again gave Mackay-Steven the keys to Dundee. When felt Edwards’ hand on his back, he suitably fell to the turf and Greg Aitken pointed for a penalty. Trevor Carson saved the initial effort but Boyce made no mistake from the rebound.
The United fans, already wound up by their former man’s lightness on his feet, produced a picture perfect show of boos, gestures, and choice words towards Aitken and the celebrating visitors. It could not have been a better spectacle of emotion had it opened up the Proms.
Nor could it have been much of a better half for Hearts, the only blot on the copybook coming when Craig Gordon was forced to push away Jamie Robson’s drive. That was just a hors d’oeuvre of what was to come from the veteran and really was as good as it got for Courts. It’s easy to say – and even easier to write – but there appears to be a Lawrence Shankland-shaped hole in their attack which Marc McNulty, as talented as he is, just doesn’t quite fit.
At least supporters could contend themselves at the break with talk of Chris Mochrie. While quiet, the teenager didn’t look out of place and Courts can point to his inclusion as more evidence that this is a United team with a long term plan. The second-half introduction of Darren Watson, like Mochrie, just 18, added to that train of thought.
For all of Hearts’ dominance – and the unleashing of Ginelly for Woodburn threatened, for a moment, to overrun United – they couldn’t quite find that second goal and had to rely on the brilliance of Gordon.
His first stop was up there with the best of the Gordon compilation DVDs, the veteran springing to his right to push Edwards’ goalbound header over the bar. Stunned, Ian Harkes, who had delivered the ball for the first chance, had a go from the corner of the box but again found Gordon in his way.
With Tannadice bouncing and Hearts now floundering, there was still time for the Scotland international to bail out his side as he used all of his 6ft 4” frame to reach Harkes’ curling shot and did the same to push away Mulgrew’s late free kick.
That took the spark out of United and a last-gasp Gnanduillet finish to make it two lit the touchpaper on the Hearts’ celebrations. This is a team which means business.