Alan Temple at Fir Park
Motherwell ascended back to the top of the SPL with a hard-fought victory over Hearts in an ill-tempered encounter which saw two men sent off.
An even, scrappy encounter swung in the direction of the men in claret-and-amber moments after half-time as Ian Black inexplicably lunged into Keith Lasley. Stevie O’Reilly produced the red – and ‘Well began to dominate.
The man advantage was turned into an advantage on the scoresheet on the hour-mark as Jamie Murphy calmly rolled a lovely finish past Marian Kello from inside the box.
Further chances followed for Murphy and Law, while Hearts – who appeared to lack a ‘Plan B’ when down to ten men – saw their best chance saved by Darren Randolph; a first half drive from Andy Driver.
The numbers were evened out with five minutes left on the clock as Keith Lasley was shown a second yellow for a foul on Novikovas – but it proved too late in the day to make a massive impact on the final result.
Stuart McCall had the pre-match fillip of being able to call on Michael Higdon – coming in for McHugh – after the bustling striker made a miraculous recovery from a thigh strain which was initially expected him to keep him out for a further week.
In less positive injury news for the ‘Well gaffer Shaun Hutchinson had to be left out after suffering a heavy knock in training on Friday afternoon. Scotland international Stevie Saunders took the big stopper’s place in central defence.
Ex-Motherwell striker John Sutton had to be content with a place on the bench on his return to Fir Park, with Paulo Sergio opting to start with Ryan Stevenson leading the line. Indeed, the only change from the side which dismantled Paks of Hungary in midfield was Jamie Hamill replacing the injured Stephen Elliott.
Early chances were at a premium in miserable Lanarkshire conditions, with Andy Driver providing the only test to either keeper with a shot from the edge of the area, having robbed Stevie Saunders, but Randolph parried away.
Motherwell’s best chance in the driving rain of the opening stages came after twenty minutes, with Steve Jennings forcing a fairly simple save from Marian Kello, following some excellent build-up play on the right flank from Tom Hateley.
Further efforts from distance by Jamie Hamill and Marius Zaliukas proved ambitious and foolhardy, and were indicative of a fairly ordinary encounter – yet ten minutes before the break the Steelmen should have been ahead.
In the first moments of outright quality Nicky Law found Chris Humphrey with a sumptuous 50 yards pass, before the Jamaican picked out Jamie Murphy at the back post with a pinpoint cross. But the Scotland under-21 star couldn’t keep his header under the bar when completely unmarked.
While ‘Well could have been ahead, they needed to rely on Darren Randolph to ensure they didn’t go in at the break one-down. Andy Driver streamed past Stephen Craigan to collect a loose ball and Randolph had to rush off his line to splendidly block Driver’s dinked effort. The Englishman then had to stoop to save a shot from Jamie Hamill as Hearts enjoyed their best spell of the game in the five minutes before the break.
If the first half was a tad lifeless then the opening exchanges of the second half made amends – with Hearts being reduced to ten men after five minutes. The tempestuous Ian Black made a crazy lunging challenge on Keith Lasley, despite the ‘Well man being in his own half, which prompted Stevie O’Reilly to produce a straight red card.
While the numerical advantage did allow Motherwell to gain the majority of the possession, clear chanced remained rare, although Stevie Hammell did somewhat scuff a decent chance wide.
The home side did finally turn their possession into a lead, partly thanks to a stunning defence-splitting pass from Stevie Saunders. The versatile defender found Nicky Law, who calmly squared the ball to Jamie Murphy, who retained his composure to slot ‘Well into the lead from eight yards.
McCall’s side were using the man advantage superbly, and could have doubled their lead when Tom Hateley lashed a drive across goal, missing all claret-and-amber jerseys. That was immediately followed by an excellent Kello save, denying Jamie Murphy from point-blank range.
Paulo Sergio – in his first SPL outing – threw on John Sutton and Arvydas Novikovas but struggled to break down an organized, composed Motherwell side, who used their extra man to perfection. Indeed, the only moment of drama came in the form of a late dismissal; Keith Lasley walking, after a second booking for a trip on Novikovas.
[tab:As it happened]
Graham Barnstaple at Fir Park
Full Time: Great three points and we are still top – three clean sheets in three games
91mins – 3 minutes being added on, 1 and a half already played!!
90mins – Sub for ‘Well – Carswell on for Murphy.
86mins – Lasley shown second yellow for a foul on Novikovas.
84mins – Hearts final change – Hammill off, Novikovas on.
80mins – Humphrey on the break fouled by Hammill at edge of box as he lines up to shoot, only a yellow!
77mins – Hearts second change – Skacle for Templeton.
75mins – Attendance this afternoon is 5685.
60mins – GOOOALLLLL – Saunders defence splitting pass to Law who squares to Murphy who beats Kello.
57mins – Sutton on for Driver for Hearts, mixed reception from Well fans.
51mins – Can we now make the extra man count?
50mins – Straight red for Ian Black for a tackle that was high and late on Keith Lasley, now making a meal of leaving the pitch.
45mins – Second half underway, with Well kicking off.
HALF TIME: The kids are from the Wishaw Soccer Centre – some quality kids football on show….
HALF TIME: The ball is bigger than some of the kids! But they seem to be having fun out there.
HALF TIME: Plenty of half time entertainment today, first Cash Converters Challenge and then Mini Steelmen doing their stuff now.
Half Time: Poor so far – Motherwell 0 – 0 Hearts.
45mins – One minute being added on, one too many!!
41mins – Driver denied by Randolph as he tries to lift the ball over the keeper.
35mins – Yellow card for Lasley for a late challenge on Mrowiec, no complaints.
32mins – Law switched play to Humphrey and his cross picks out Murphy who can only head over.
20mins – Humphrey cross reaches Jennings whose shot from back of box is beaten out by Kello for a corner.
17mins – Sadly not a lot to report, both sides are cancelling each other out in dismal wet conditions.
7mins – Murphy and Higdon combine to set up Law but he can only stroke a weak shot wide of the far post.
5mins – Saunders half clearance reaches Driver at the edge of the box and Randolph saves his effort at full length.
1min – Game is underway, Hearts kick off and we are hitting towards the South Stand.
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall:
“It is a good start; It is obviously what we are looking for, but it’s nothing more than that. We have to keep building on it and we look to the next game against St Mirren and nothing more.
“Hearts had the better chances in the first half, which came from us giving the ball away sloppily. Obviously the sending off had an impact on the game, but it was a little bit nervy at the end. If we could have got the second goal we would have killed them off, but I was delighted with the three points and the clean sheet.”
Hearts manager Paulo Sergio:
“Perhaps we should have not have lost, but we have a lot to improve, but I’m sure we will because we have lots of football to look forward to.
“I feel a draw may have been fair but I offer congratulations to Motherwell.”