OPPRESSIVE heat and long journeys are never particularly easy or enjoyable for those suffering from hangovers.
So Dundee United, still reeling from the humiliating 7-0 mauling they suffered at the hands of AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Conference League on Thursday night, were always liable to struggle against Hearts at Tynecastle today.
This cinch Premiership match in Gorgie against opponents who were comfortably the third best team in the country last term was not the first fixture that manager Jack Ross would have wanted immediately after the painful excursion to north Holland.
The stifling temperatures much of the match was played in added an extra degree of difficulty to an already tough away outing and United duly suffered their third consecutive loss to remain just a point off bottom spot in the top flight table.
Hearts, meanwhile, warmed up for the first leg of their Europa League play-off with Zurich in St Gallen this week with a emphatic 4-1 triumph which maintained their unbeaten start to the 2021/22 campaign and kept them two points behind leaders Celtic and Rangers.
A Lawrence Shankland strike in the first minute and Barrie McKay, Jorge Grant and Josh Ginnelly goals in the second-half ensured that Robbie Neilson’s men will travel to Switzerland in a confident frame of mind.
United fought to the end and were awarded a penalty when referee Colin Steven ruled that Gary Mackay-Steven had brought down Aziz Behich. Substitute Steven Fletcher buried the spot kick to open his account for his new club. But it was scant consolation for the 718-strong travelling supporters.
Ross made three changes to the United team which had slumped to their heaviest ever European defeat three days earlier; Craig Sibbald, Dylan Levitt and Steven Fletcher and dropped out and Glenn Middleton, Ross Graham and Mathew Cudjoe came in.
Neilson, meanwhile, dropped Peter Haring to the bench and brought in Cammy Devlin, who made an immediate impact.
The Hearts fans belted out a chant of “you lucky b*******, it should have been 10” as soon as the match kicked off. It looked very much as if another heavy defeat might be the offing for the visitors when they fell behind after just 43 seconds.
Liam Boyce sent Devlin into the opposition area and the midfielder squared Shankland at the near post. The striker does not spurn many opportunities which fall to him inside the six yard box and he pounced and turned into the net.
Ross will have been looking to Charlie Mulgrew, the most experienced member of his squad, to lift his charges after their midweek embarrassment. But the former Celtic, Blackburn Rovers and Scotland player, deployed in the holding midfielder role in front of a four man defence, was fortunate not to gift Hearts a second seven minutes later.
His crossfield pass was intercepted by McKay inside his own half. The winger ran the length of the field before sending a shot just wide of the right post. Mulgrew was a relieved man when they attempt slid just by.
Cudjoe, United’s diminutive Ghanaian midfielder, has impressed onlookers with his youthful energy and ability on the ball in the first team appearances he has made since joining from Young Apostles in his homeland last year.
But the teenager conceded a free-kick just outside his penalty box in the 20th minute when he bundled over McKay and could have no complaints about being booked by Steven. Mark Birighitti did well to tip a dipping Grant effort over the crossbar and keep his side in touch.
United started to apply some pressure of their own and only some smart Hearts defending from Michael Smith and good goalkeeping from their captain Craig Gordon denied them an equaliser. Smith sent a dangerous Glenn Middleton cross out for a corner and Gordon palmed a long-range Ryan Edwards shot away.
They really, though, had to capitalise on their opportunities at such a tough venue to get a result. They were made to pay for their lack of a cutting edge in the final third just three minutes after half-time. McKay cut inside from the left and curled beyond Birighitti.
The Australian keeper was to blame for the third in the 72nd minute. He pushed an ambitious attempt from Smith straight to the feet to Grant and the midfielder had the simplest of tasks adding his name to the scoresheet.
Ross put on Craig Sibbald for Mulgrew and Fletcher for Cudjoe and the second of his replacements showed his quality at the penalty. The former Hibs player was unaffected by the loud boos which rang out around Tynecastle as he stepped forward to take it and he confidently converted.
But substitue Ginnelly also made no mistake in injury-time either after being supplied by Shankland. He rounded off a throughly satisfying afternoon for Hearts. Dundee United will have to show great powers of recovery in the days ahead to bounce back from such a demoralising week.