Dundee United’s players were given the mother of all challenges by chairman Stephen Thompson and they responded in the perfect manner.
A fabulous strike from captain Paul Paton with just two minutes remaining gave the Tangerines a welcome 2-1 win against Hearts after one of the toughest weeks at Tannadice in many a year.
After the stinging statement from Thompson, issued in the wake of the 3-0 defeat to Motherwell on Tuesday, everyone was looking to see how United would react.
They played better under serious pressure than they did against the Steelmen although that wouldn’t have been hard and showed some real spirit.
They now sit 11 points behind Kilmarnock with a game in hand, with 12 games remaining in the Premiership season.
After the Jam Tarts lost Jordan McGhee to a red card on 39 minutes, United took the lead two minutes before the break through a Guy Demel header at the near post.
However, the Tynecastle men struck back just three minutes into the second half through a fine strike from Jamie Walker.
Paton then pounced late on with a cracker of a shot from outside the box to bring some much-needed cheer to the club.
Manager Mixu Paatelainen was relieved and happy on a rare day when he could reflect on a victory.
He said: “It was a positive response.
“The boys showed there are quite a few strong characters in the dressing room.
“There’s been a lot of criticism and rightly so.
“Nevertheless, it’s never nice and the way the boys bounced back from the disappointment of Tuesday was excellent.
“If we can keep showing that spirit, I feel there is a possibility we can stay up.
“It’s a long road and it’s just one win.
“But it’s a good win and the players’ attitude was excellent.”
The casualties from Tuesday’s debacle were skipper Sean Dillon, Paul Dixon, Billy Mckay and Simon Murray.
Dillon and Dixon at least made the bench but both Mckay and Murray were rested.
Into the starting line-up came Mark Durnan, Scott Fraser, Edward Ofere and Florent Sinama-Pongolle.
As the teams came out there was a banner produced in the Eddie Thompson Stand, reading: “Enough Is Enough, Thompson Out” but it had disappeared from view by kick-off.
A different banner with the same message appeared at half-time in the upper tier of the same stand but again didn’t stay unfurled for long.
There were precious few chances for either team in the early stages but it was United who had more of the ball.
On 16 minutes, the Tangerines were denied what would have been a deserved lead by a brilliant save by Jam Tarts goalie Neil Alexander.
Scott Fraser floated a corner in from the right and up rose Ofere at the near post to glance a header that was going in until Alexander somehow got a hand to the ball.
A bit of day-dreaming at the halfway line by United’s Gavin Gunning let in Abiola Duada up the left flank but the Hearts man could only shoot wide when he got near the box.
On the half-hour, United came close again but were denied by Alexanderagain.
Blair Spittal raced down the right before sending over a great cross that was met full on the forehead by Demel but Alexander was there to save.
Sinama-Pongolle was then just beaten to a 50-50 ball at the edge of the box by the Hearts keeper a minute later as the hosts continued to dominate.
Gunning gave Paton a poor pass in midfield and the ball spun loose to Sam Nicholson, whose shot from 25 yards wasn’t far away.
On 39 minutes, United found themselves playing against 10 men after McGhee was sent off.
He had been booked four minutes earlier for a challenge on Demel and the next tackle on Ofere was enough to earn a second yellow then a red.
Hearts boss Robbie Neilson criticised referee Kevin Clancy for his decision to send off McGhee.
He said: “We went down to 10 men and dominated the game.
“Yes, we got beat with a wonder goal at the end but the decision with McGhee totally changed the game.
“You get a warning, then you get booked and then you go in and make a good tackle and you get a yellow card.
“I’ve seen it again on the video.
“There are things referees look at – is it reckless, is it endangering, is it at pace, is it studs up? It was none of that and he plays the ball.”
John Rankin almost opened the scoring when he fired the ball across the face of the net and then off the far upright but the goal wasn’t delayed long.
With two minutes to go to the break, Fraser sent over another corner from the right and Demel was there to head the ball at the near post once again.
This time Alexander couldn’t get there quickly enough and the Tangerines were 1-0 up.
The visitors hit back just three minutes after the restart.
Former United man John Souttar, who had replaced Dario Zanatta at the end of the first period, played a ball down the left channel that found Walker.
His first touch to control the ball was terrific and enabled him to fire a shot high into the net from inside the box.
Spittal tried a snap-shot for United before there was an injury scare for the hosts.
A freekick from Alim Ozturk hit midfielder Rankin, who had been standing in the wall. The United man seemed to be knocked out cold but, thankfully, he recovered and played on.
On 68 minutes, the hosts’ luck ran out when sub Ryan Dow raced clear then lobbed the advancing Alexander only to see the ball fly up in the air, bounce near the six-yard line then spin back up over the bar.
With the game reaching 88 minutes, Paton blasted the ball into the Hearts net from 22 yards to seal the points for the Tangerines.
There was still time enough for United sub Henri Anier to get himself sent off in the closing seconds after having a kick at Ozturk. He had been booked earlier for a foul on the same player.