Red card for Ben and red face for Colin as Hearts press the big red button
With my usual match-day companions otherwise engaged attending christenings and weekends away with partners, my decision to embark on a solo mission to Motherwell was not taken lightly, but having recently moved from Shandon to South Lanarkshire, Fir Park is essentially as local to me as Tynecastle, so I eventually talked myself into it.
Games on your tod are a different experience altogether. For one thing, I was less inclined to vocalise my dismay or outrage and — with nobody to bounce complaints off — found myself simply contemplating the game in front of me. Even in the last minute, when you-know-what happened and those around me were losing their minds, the best I could muster was the kind of resigned groan that would fall somewhere on the scale of reactions between hearing another Greatest Showman cover on the radio and stepping in dog shit. Why? Because, as I alluded to in my piece on Sunday morning, it all seemed so familiar and predictable.
Taking Sunday’s defeat into account, our league form since the winter recess has been erratic at best. In the five games we’ve played, we’ve taken maximum points from the two arguably tougher encounters with top six opposition (including an impressive win away to Kilmarnock) yet collected a solitary point from meetings with Dundee, Livingston and Motherwell. On at least two of those occasions, this weekend included, results elsewhere have gone very much in our favour and we’ve failed to take advantage. In fact, we should be thankful the teams above us slipped up when they did, otherwise they’d be all but out of sight by now.
In terms of the way we lost yesterday, I had to laugh at the way Sky Sports described David Turnbull’s free kick in their text commentary, referring to it as a “right-footed shot to the top right corner”, as though it were something plucked directly from an Andrea Pirlo highlights reel. In a way, I wish it had been, because at least in those situations you can hold your hands up and admit that you’ve been beaten by a moment of quality. But this wasn’t one of those moments. Far from it.
It’s easy to chalk the result up to one clanger and yes, in real terms Colin Doyle’s mistake is what ultimately gifted Motherwell the win. You’ll be hard-pushed to find a poorer bit of goalkeeping at a worse possible time, but to focus entirely on that incident is to ignore the handful of crucial saves the Irishman made earlier in the game to bail out his defenders and keep Hearts in contention up until that point. In that respect, Doyle’s performance was a microcosm of the team’s overall showing on the day — moments of quality undone by individual lapses in concentration, clumsy mistakes and poor decision-making.
Poor decision-making, for example, by Ben Garuccio. This incident appears to have divided opinion and I have to admit that in real time, from my relatively limited view of it in the upper deck of the away end, I thought the Australian’s challenge was perfectly fair. Having looked at it again, I find it harder to defend.
It’s most definitely a free-kick. Yes he wins the ball, but he also throws himself into the challenge with both feet off the ground which is at the very least a careless action. Whether or not the challenge merited a red card is a different debate entirely and depends very much on your own subjective interpretation of the rules. For me, the way he throws himself in verges on reckless and probably would have merited a booking; I’m not convinced it amounts to excessive force or goes as far as endangering the safety of Grimshaw and therefore the red seems a little harsh on reflection.
Nevertheless, it’s the referee’s interpretation that counts and by opting to leave the ground, Garuccio — to adopt the well-worn cliché — “gives the referee a decision to make”. Who knows, maybe if the game been overseen by Bobby Madden (whose interpretation of an arguably more robust Scott Brown challenge was decidedly lenient) the final moments may have panned out differently.
Craig Levein, meanwhile, was unambiguous in where he stood on the decision, siding somewhat surprisingly for once with the referee and thus ruling out the likelihood of an appeal from the club. Whether that’s because Levein genuinely believed it was a red or it was simply a by-product of this apparent behind-the-scenes beef between manager and player, is another matter altogether.
It’s a shame, as I thought we looked in far better shape when Garuccio replaced Conor Shaughnessy and we switched to a flat back four. Up until then, Motherwell’s attackers had made a point of leaving Christophe Berra to his own devices, focusing most of their efforts on John Souttar and an already-shaky Shaughnessy, safe in the knowledge that the Hearts skipper — not exactly famous for his distribution — would hand possession back to them more often than not. And they were right to.
Yesterday was the most glaring indication yet that Berra is a fish out water in a back three, particularly on the left where he is often relied upon to initiate attacking phases. Old dogs and new tricks spring to mind here. Berra is 34-years old and in the autumn of his career, a career he’s forged as a very “traditional” centre half: there is as much chance of him transforming into a modern ball-playing defender as there is of Colin Doyle finding a time machine.
Unfortunately, with Garuccio suspended and Demi Mitchell injured, the lack of options at left back offers limited scope for a back four when St Mirren come to Edinburgh on Saturday. Unless Levein is confident about handing Bobby Burns a rare outing, it’s more than likely we’ll start that game in a similar shape to Sunday.
In the meantime, Doyle has taken to Twitter to apologise for his blunder, which is all he can do really, and the fan reaction seems to have been reasonably forgiving. Since replacing Bobby Zlamal, the Irishman has certainly amassed enough credit in the bank to justify a reprieve on this occasion, rather than be dropped immediately and have his Hearts career forever defined by what we all hope to look back on as a freak mistake. For that reason, I fully expect him to retain his place in the side.