All too often this season, Heart of Midlothian have been slow out of the traps. Defeats to Dundee, Motherwell and St Mirren in the league – even the draw at home to Kilmarnock last month and the recent win over Aberdeen – were all plagued by the same old problems: possession for possession’s sake, a lack of incision in the final third and a general reluctance to take risks on the ball.

It left supporters feeling understandably frustrated. What had happened to the front-foot, aggressive displays towards the tail end of last season that landed Steven Naismith the head coach role in the first place?

Some directed their ire at the club hierarchy heading into the Viaplay Cup quarter-final. Bedsheets emblazoned with the messages ‘sack the board’ and ‘Budge over’ were left draping from a bridge in Gorgie as unhappy fans made their feelings known, while a banner was unveiled shortly after kick-off at Rugby Park that read ‘Funded by fans, ran by clowns. We deserve better’.

Better is exactly what they got in Ayrshire.

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With an Edinburgh derby and back-to-back fixtures against either half of the Old Firm on the horizon a result – and importantly, a performance – was required to alleviate some of the pressure building, at the very least externally. Naismith got both against Kilmarnock. The team started strongly on a wet and windy night at Rugby Park, probing their opponents’ defence early on and asking a couple of awkward questions as they looked to seize the early initiative.

The front four of Lawrence Shankland, Jorge Grant, Alan Forrest and Kenneth Vargas were operating well as a unit, and there was a far greater fluidity in the final third than there has been in recent weeks. Kilmarnock’s high press meant that the quartet were essentially left 1v1 against Killie’s back four (comprised entirely of centre-halves) and all four Hearts attackers played important roles in stretching and twisting the hosts’ defence as they harried after long balls in behind and shifted their markers hither and yon.

Grant, it must be said, was at the heart of much of what Hearts got right. The Englishman, signed from Peterborough United in the summer of 2022, started in his preferred No.10 role and dovetailed nicely with Shankland at the tip of the team’s spear. When Shankland dropped deeper to receive the ball, taking his marker with him, Grant would nip in behind to occupy the space – and vice-versa – as they did their utmost to disrupt Kilmarnock’s back line. And it worked a treat.

When the opening goal arrived, it was no less than Naismith’s men deserved. And it also came via another feature of attacking play that has been conspicuous by its absence in recent weeks: a player striding forward in possession, breaking the opponent’s lines and drawing a defender towards the ball.

Hearts Standard: Jorge Grant opened the scoring with a sublime shot from distanceJorge Grant opened the scoring with a sublime shot from distance (Image: SNS)

It started as Calem Nieuwenhof – who perhaps put in his best performance in a Hearts jersey to date – collected the ball in midfield and drove directly at the Kilmarnock defence, shifting the ball to Forrest who was dispossessed on the edge of the area. When centre-back Kye Rowles intercepted Brad Lyons’ clearance, he followed his team-mate’s example by charging forward before picking out Shankland on the edge of Killie’s box. One cushioned lay-off and composed finish later, and Hearts had the lead.

It is a weapon in Hearts’ attacking arsenal that Naismith’s side have often been reluctant to use this season, and Tuesday night’s victory showed exactly how effective it can be. Nieuwenhof is still settling into his new surroundings but it the fact that he can beat the midfield press and carry the ball forward is a rather sizable string to his bow. We have seen it in flashes in other games this term and even though there wasn’t always a final ball to follow it up against Kilmarnock, the Australian’s endeavour in the middle was a very welcome sight.

Derek McInnes’ side threatened a lot more in the second half as they started peppering Zander Clark’s goal and when Brad Lyons’ header levelled the scores with 20 minutes to go, the home team were in the ascendancy. Naismith soon put a stop to that, changing the shape to a 3-4-1-2 – and chances for the home side dried up.

The winning goal arrived courtesy of a well-executed counter-attack as Hearts broke forward at pace. Kilmarnock were perhaps a little too eager themselves as they threw bodies forward in search of a knockout blow at a late free-kick and when Hearts eventually broke upon them, substitute Odel Offiah drove menacingly down the right wing before playing a delightful early ball into Shankland. There may have been a small slice of fortune about the manner in which the ball broke to Liam Boyce’s feet after the striker fluffed an attempt at goal, but there was nothing lucky whatsoever about Alex Lowry’s remarkably composed finish seconds later that sent his team to Hampden.

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One swallow doesn’t make a summer and the win over Kilmarnock won’t be seen as some sort of panacea by supporters, but it did offer grounds for cautious optimism. Hearts’ determination to seize the game by the scruff of its neck in the first half and play the game on their terms paid dividends, and the challenge now is to consistently show the same urgency early on in matches. The clever movement in the final third provided Hearts with a far greater attacking threat than they have often shown this season, while the disruptive line-breaking runs from deep are precisely what the team have been crying out for.

The next few games will tell us if a corner has been turned or if this was simply a false dawn. Hearts rediscovered their attacking mojo in Ayrshire – but they will have to keep producing to ensure momentum is built rather than lost.