BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson insists Jamie MacDonald’s penalty heroics came as no surprise as the Jambos closed in on European qualification with a narrow 1-0 win over Kilmarnock.
The former Tynecastle keeper, who won the Scottish Cup with the club in 2012, turned in a man of the match display on his old patch, saving two penalty kicks yet still emerging on the losing side.
He made his first spot-kick stop after seven minutes, stooping to parry Jamie Walker’s effort onto the post, only for the winger to react quickest to prod home the rebound – just as Neilson had advised before the fixture.
MacDonald then repeated the feat to deny Abiola Dauda’s effort in the second half. Nevertheless, Hearts held on to claim the victory.
Neilson lauded: “That’s what Jamie is good at – shot stopping. I spoke to the players before and I said if we get a penalty get in for that second ball because we know he is very good at that, that’s his forte.
“Anything round about him, he will save it. He has saved two penalties at Tynecastle and there won’t be too many people who have done that.
“If we had got the second goal it would have killed the game. But it got more difficult and then I thought we defended well.”
Sam Nicholson hit the post for the Jambos, while MacDonald also denied a low drive from Walker and, with Killie pushing for an equaliser, the hosts navigated a nervous finale.
The triumph sees Hearts move 11 points clear of St Johnstone and Ross County in third place, which would be enough to secure a return to the Europa League for the capital club.
However, Neilson has more lofty ambitions as he aims to catch Aberdeen in second spot, with nine points separating the sides.
He added: “With Aberdeen, St Johnstone and Celtic dropping points and Ross County losing it gives us a real lift and pushes us up there.
“We want to aim up the way and aim for Aberdeen and if we do that we’ll stay away from fourth place.”
Killie’s defeat was compounded by rock-bottom Dundee United claiming a shock 3-0 win over Ross County, closing the gap to the Ayrshire outfit to eight points. The Terrors also have a game in hand.
Nevertheless, manager Lee Clark, who is still seeking his first win since taking the reins at Rugby Park, insists the results have not shaken their resolve that they will secure top-flight survival.
Clark said: “We can only affect our own results, but there is definitely enough here and we just have to believe we have got enough. I do and the staff do, and we’ve got to keep ploughing on.
“This was always going to be a tough game and we have more than held our own.
“I think we put them under pressure without testing their goalkeeper enough. But I feel we deserved something from the game, for sure.”