A FAMILIAR tale of disappointment unravelled on a stormy Friday night in Edinburgh.
A 2-1 defeat at the hands of high-flying Dundee United opened the relegation trap door slightly wider for Hearts.
The Jambos faithful were out in force in the bitter conditions to witness another underwhelming dismantling which, even Gary Locke reluctantly confessed, highlighted the story of their troubled season.
Another gallant effort of enthusiasm went unrewarded as a defensive vulnerability and lack of creativity resonated which has contributed to their rapid downfall.
Stranded at the foot of the Premiership, 21 points adrift of safety with a mere six-point tally and 19 losses from 30 games. It cannot possibly be any grimmer for Hearts at the moment, it seems.
But the unfortified doom may plunge even lower a week on Sunday when Edinburgh rivals Hibernian are presented with the opportunity of hammering the final nail in the coffin, confirming the inevitable.
Hearts have a habit of ramping up the pressure on their fierce neighbours and answering the cries to give their passionate patrons something to cheer, even in their darkest hour. Two derby wins already this term certainly bodes confidence but offers no guarantees.
Hearts have been spirited all season, showing strength in adversity that belies the average squad age of 20.
But without the necessary quality to hurt opponents, the Jambos have been fighting a losing battle and fallen short in many areas that their relegation rivals are vastly superior in.
It’s a desperate situation that evolved off the field and has congruently developed on it.
A turbulent twelve months in charge for ex-captain Locke began with League Cup final heartache and his first full season at the helm will end in the bitter ignominy. The unthinkable that shall soon become reality.
The Maroons have displayed a soft centre that has made them easy to beat, giving United a two-goal start before illustrating admirable resilience to claw their way back.
The most frustrating element from a manager’s perspective is losing the first goal, particularly in tightly balanced contests that can tilt either way in a split second.
It took one decisive moment of quality to split open the Jambos rearguard and United capitalised fully ten minutes before the break.
The Hearts defence could hardly be blamed for the manner in which the Tangerines ruthlessly sliced them open.
Ryan Dow jinked away from two limp challenges and Andrew Robertson advanced to the byline before squaring for Brian Graham to complete the formalities from six yards. As simple as that.
In the space of a six-second salvo, the game swung in the way of the visitors and that’s how it remained.
Locke will have delivered a positive message during half-time after his side enjoyed promising spells of possession in the first period and caused keeper Radoslaw Cierzniak one or two problems.
The torrential conditions did not help the flow of the contest and affected the ability to string a sequence of passes together but contributed to a largely scrappy affair.
Hearts committed more men forward in the second half which ultimately allowed United to strengthen their command on proceedings.
Sam Nicholson was more prominent down the left hand side, yet ineffective with insufficient support, while Jamie Hamill held the fought in the centre of the park.
But the growing gaps in the defence between Dylan McGowan and Danny Wilson, with a lack of protection from Scott Robinson, were there to exploit and Nadir Ciftci obliged in stunning style.
At a point in the game where Hearts were naturally pressing for a leveller, United always looked more likely to grab the next goal such is their potent danger and pace on the counter.
It stemmed from a needless giveaway from McGowan, gifting the ball to Mark Wilson whose pass for Ciftci was slightly overhit.
The Turk took custody of it and the rest was pure genius. A spectacular strike worthy of winning any game.
Their battling qualities can never be questioned and even when the odds were stacked against them, Hearts could not be accused of caving in or giving up.
Despite responsible for several costly errors, Wilson has been the definition of a professional this term and the captain’s thumping header from Nicholson’s free-kick salvaged some hope.
On reflection, Hearts will feel hard done by having been undone by an incisive and well-crafted move and a 25-yard blooter.
The late rally, and hard-working ethic throughout, showed the togetherness of the young group and the never-say-die attitude that will stand them in good stead.
Brad McKay’s entrance in the closing stages gave them added height in the attack and a pensive Jackie McNamara would have been biting his nails as his side were on the back foot.
But it was too little too late for Hearts and in truth a United win, although well-fought and at times unconvincing, was never in doubt.
Chances were few and far between and when they came along, Ryan Stevenson and Calum Paterson could not convert. That is the difference at any level.
Taking advantage of superior spells is something Hearts failed to achieve. United did.
Boasting the fewest goals and the leakiest defence in the division, the youngest squad, lowest points tally, the right-back as a top scorer and most inexperienced manager speaks volumes as to the predicament Hearts are in.
A lack of experience in certain scenarios has taken its toll while the absence of a leading marksman has left them despairingly short in the goals department.
The season has had its high-points (namely the five-game unbeaten run, two wins over Aberdeen, successive derby wins and run to the League Cup semi-finals) but they have not come often enough and papered over the cracks the damage has left.
With 12 players out of contract at the end of the season, another rebuilding process similar to last summer will have to take place again before life in the Championship can be contemplated.
Should their financial predicament allow the Gorgie club to make the August kick-off in the second tier, the current plight suggests that is where Hearts would be suited right now.
The immediate future may appear bleak but beneath the surface, stability could propel one of Scotland’s traditional and close-knit clubs back to the top-flight, where they feel at home.