Hearts went down 1-0 to Preston North End at Deepdale on Saturday afternoon.
Joe Garner’s second-half header was all that separated the two sides in a hard-fought encounter.
Robbie Neilson was able to field a strong starting line-up at Deepdale, with Blazej Augustyn returning to the side and wearing the captain’s armband.
The opening 10 minutes were fairly even in terms of possession, though the hosts could lay claim to the best chances. Daniel Johnson did well to play in Jermaine Beckford who shot wide, while Paul Huntington’s back-post header was cleared off the line by Sean McKirdy.
The Jambos went close on 20 minutes when Osman Sow capitalised on a wayward pass from Paul Gallagher deep in the PNE half. The Swede ran to the edge of the penalty box before pulling the trigger, but he screwed his shot inches wide of the target.
Callum Paterson’s 30th minute free kick took a deflection over the bar, and he then met the resultant corner from Billy King but headed over without troubling Jamie Jones in PNE’s goal.
Sow produced a moment of magic just before half-time, from which Hearts nearly took the lead. He beautifully spun his man at the edge of the box and hit a sweet half-volley, which had Jones beaten, agonisingly wide of the post.
No changes at half-time for either side mean it was as you were, and Hearts picked up where they left off. King’s 49th minute corner was floated to the back door and Paterson rose to nod narrowly over the bar.
The Jambos had Neil Alexander to thank for keeping the scores level. Will Keane’s cute turn in the box sent Augustyn sprawling, but the striker’s curled effort was brilliantly blocked by the Hearts no. 1.
Moments later, Alexander was to the rescue again. Joe Garner raced into the box and hit a snapshot, however the ‘keeper stood firm and made the save.
Just before the hour mark, Alexander made it a hat-trick of outstanding saves. Garner found acres of the space inside the box to get on the end of a cross from the left, but the ‘keeper sprung to tip the ball over the bar.
The hosts then took the lead. Alexander’s sliced clearance hovered in the air inside the box before Garner beat Jordan McGhee to the ball, heading towards the line. Alexander rushed to punch clear but the linesman flagged for a goal, much to the ‘keeper’s disgust. TV footage has since proved inconclusive.
King nearly nicked an equaliser with a minute to go when he got on the end of a through ball, but with Jones off his line the winger couldn’t get enough lift on it and merely knocked the ball off the leg of his marker.
Preston NE: Jones, Clarke, Wright, Keane, Beckford, Johnson, Gallagher, Garner, Woods, Welsh, Huntington. Subs: James, Browne, Little, Davies, Brownhill, Hugill, Ryan, Anderton, Heaton.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, McHattie, Augustyn, McGhee, Nicholson, McKirdy (L. Smith, 85'), Pallardo (Anderson, 51'), King, Walker (El Hassnaoui, 82'), Sow (Reilly, 59'). Subs: Hamilton, Ozturk, Gomis, Buaben.
Referee: D Handley
Top man: Sean McKirdy