Five goals, a hat-trick for the hosts' captain, Barry Robson, two penalties, three red cards (all for the visitors), six yellow cards, and one embarrassing howler by a referee who appeared not to know the rules. So much for a quiet resumption to Scottish top-flight football yesterday following the death last Saturday of Motherwell's Phil O'Donnell.
Dundee United were Motherwell's opponents last weekend when O'Donnell collapsed on the Fir Park pitch with heart failure. Several United players, including Lee Wilkie and Noel Hunt, tried to help him and were traumatised at seeing him unconscious, eyes wide open, clearly in a dreadful condition. However, whereas Motherwell's next two games were understandably called off and yesterday's scheduled Old Firm derby at Parkhead was postponed at the behest of Celtic one of O'Donnell's former clubs, where he has many friends United's own request to the Scottish Premier League fell on deaf ears.
In such circumstances, most observers had anticipated a low-key game in a flat atmosphere. After O'Donnell was commemorated before kick-off with a minute of applause, a subdued first 45 minutes suggested that might be the case. Two goals a Robson free-kick, then Christophe Berra's equaliser broke up the tedium a little.
What else could one expect from two sides out of form? United had just two wins in nine games before yesterday, which had damaged their challenge in the pack chasing the Old Firm at the top of the SPL table. Meanwhile, Hearts had one win in nine before kick-off, and are looking for a new manager to lift them away from the relegation scrap.
But with 20 minutes remaining, mayhem ensued. The Hearts central defender Marius Zaliukas was given a red card for an elbow on Wilkie in the visitors' area. Play resumed for a good minute before a linesman, Craig Young, pointed out to the referee, Alan Freeland, that Zaliukas' offence warranted a penalty. One was duly awarded 90 seconds late and Robson, the subject of intense interest in this transfer window from Celtic, made it 2-1.
Robson supplied United's third from a free-kick, which was glanced in by Hunt in the 84th minute. Hearts' Lee Wallace then earned a red card for upending Robson in the penalty area with two minutes to go and Robson completed his hat-trick from the spot. The visitors' Michael Stewart was the third player to see red, in injury time, for a second bookable offence, in this case bad language.
"Indiscipline is something which has been inherently wrong at our club for too long," said Stephen Frail, Hearts' caretaker manager, afterwards.
"Crazy game, eh?" were the first words afterwards from United's manager, Craig Levein. He was among a majority at both clubs who had wanted the game called off. Wilkie too. "It's a joke and an absolute embarrassment that we're being made to play," the United defender had said beforehand. "It's beyond me why the SPL feel there is any need to play this match. It means nothing when you consider the tragic events of the past few days."
The SPL's general secretary, Iain Blair, sought to justify the fixture going ahead by saying: "What we want to do is to provide an opportunity for Scottish football to come together and show its respect and honour for Phil."
Robson dedicated his hat-trick to O'Donnell, "for what that's worth. Three points doesn't mean much today."
Levein added: "The boys were very subdued before the match. I had no idea what to expect at all. Regardless of the result, I think the game should not have been played today."
Dundee United (4-5-1): Szamotulski; Dillon, Wilkie (Kenneth, 89), Dods, Grainger; Kerr, Gomis, D Robertson (Swanson, 60), Robson, Flood (Odhiambo, 89); Hunt. Substitutes not used: McLean (gk), Conway, Buaben, J Robertson.
Heart of Midlothian (4-4-2): Banks; Neilsen, Zaliukas, Berra, Wallace; Mikoliunas (Pospisil, 81), Stewart, Palazuelos, Driver (Cesnauskis, 34); Velicka, Elliot (Nade, 64). Substitutes not used: Basso (gk), Goncalves, Jonsson, McGowan.
Referee: A Freeland.Reuse content