Motherwell showed tremendous determination and grit to claim a place in next season’s UEFA Europa Conference League with a 2-1 win over Hearts.
A breath-taking start with two goals in the opening nine minutes heightened the drama as ‘Well chased a win which would almost certainly guarantee them at least fifth spot in the cinch Premiership.
As the Steelmen moved up to fourth place, the players took a deserved lap of honour as the ‘Well fans partied and looked out their passports.
In their bid for a European place Graham Alexander’s men made the perfect start when Joe Effort’s third-minute strike gave them the lead. But Josh Ginnelly’s equaliser killed any thoughts of celebrations.
Another crucial goal from Ricki Lamie ten minutes into the second half put the home side in the driving seat which they firmly maintained until the final whistle.
Despite his winning goal against Ross County on Saturday, Kevin van Veen was only fit enough for a place on the bench. Ross Tierney also stepped down as Callum Slattery and Dean Cornelius were restored to the starting line-up.
In their quest to collect three points and secure a European place the Fir Park men made a dream start.
Slattery diagonal pass sent Connor Shields racing into the box and when his low angled drive was parried by Ross Stewart, Efford pounced on the loose ball and lift it high into the net beyond the grounded ’keeper.
That raised the spirits and expectations of the home fans but they were grounded just seven minutes later when the Edinburgh side equalised. Ginnelly latched on to a through ball, skipped past Juhani Ojala on his way into the penalty box before sliding the ball beyond the advancing Liam Kelly to make it 1-1.
‘Well responded positively to that setback and a couple of tempting crosses sped across Stewart’s six-yard box found no takers in claret and amber.
At the other end Kelly made an impressive save when he dived low to his right to push away Peter Haring’s 20-yard drive.
As the half progressed the Tynecastle side, with a handful of first-choice players on the bench, found their passing game. That left ‘Well finding it difficult to win and retain possession, particularly in their opponent’s half.
Three minutes from the interval a speedy break breached the Hearts’ defence. Having raced clear of Toby Sibbick, though, Efford elected to shoot for goal rather than play in Sean Goss and Shields who looked better placed to test Stewart.
The introduction of Van Veen at half-time as the Steelmen went three up front almost had an immediate effect. The ‘Well striker pulled the Hearts’ defence wide leaving Efford unmarked to meet Shields floated cross only to nod the ball a couple of metres wide of Stewart’s right-hand post.
Suddenly the home side posed a threat on the visitors’ goal that was missing in the first half.
And that threat was converted into a goal after 55 minutes.
Van Veen’s turn and shot produced a corner. Slattery’s inswinger found Haring’s headed clearance fall kindly for Lamie who calmly stroked it through a packed goal line to make it 2-1.
Hearts again looked for a quick equaliser and three minutes later Kelly did well to get down and hold Alex Cochrane’s free kick as Liam Boyce hovered for a slip up.
Robbie Neilson strengthened his attack with on loan Everton striker Ellis Simms, before with 20 minutes remaining, Goss and Slattery made way for Ross Tierney and Liam Shaw.
No doubt with one eye on next week’s Scottish Cup final, Hearts made a succession of substitutions in the final 15 minutes which interrupted the flow of the game.
However, ‘Well remained focused on their objective and despite the fear of conceding a late equaliser.
Those thoughts should have been erased six minutes from time. Tierney won the ball and set up Efford on the left of the box but with plenty of support in front of goal he shot tamely toward the waiting Stewart.
That left the Fir Park fans having to endure seven minutes of added on time, erupting at the final whistle as the team stoutly defended their lead to claim a coveted European spot.