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Football: Gordon gives Hearts tonic; HEARTS......................2 KILMARNOCK............1 YOUNGSTER HELPS LEVEIN'S MEN STOP ROT SPL EXTRA _- Keeper stakes claim.

Byline: RAY HEPBURN

ANDY KIRK and Phil Stamp were Hearts' goal heroes but it was keeper Craig Gordon who stopped their disastrous rot.

Craig Levein's team had lost their last four games on the bounce, while Kilmarnock had won three.

But for the 20-year-old's acrobatics in Heart's goal, Kilmarnock would have been celebrating four straight wins early on.

Arguments are raging over who should be Berti Vogts' first choice for Scotland, but the future certainly looks encouraging for Gordon.

For the rookie keeper kept his team in the game for the first hour, with a combination of skills that leave him with only experience to find.

Like many of his colleagues, Gordon impressed with his shot-stopping ability, but unlike many of them was confident and sure when coming for cross balls.

And more than once in the match he possessed the bravery and anticipation to get off his line swiftly and deal with Kilmarnock's regular raids.

The goals apart their was not a great deal for Levein to enthuse over, for his players have not rediscovered their early season rhythm.

A lack of craft in midfield meant that Kirk and Mark De Vries battled on up front, without accurate, supply of the ball.

Scott Severin, probably in his last season with the Edinburgh club, tried hard to find that missing guile but found little assistance.

For although he fired in a sweet second goal, Stamp needs to lose around two stone in weight, to be the Premiership-quality player he can be.

The defeat was hard for Kilmarnock to take for they had been the better passing team throughout, although suffered from lack of the quality final pass.

Even so, they created many more chances than the home side and manager Jim Jefferies can console himself with the reflection that on another day some would have gone in.

Gordon showed first on the half hour mark that this was to be his day when he raced to the edge of the area to block a scoring shot from Kris Boyd, after Freddy Dindeleux's header had taken him clear. Just four minutes later the young keeper was arching back to his right, as Colin Nish's surprise snap shot from 25 yards looked to be dipping in under the bar.

Hearts were struggling to make inroads against Killie's robust defence, but on 37 minutes De Vries encouraged with a shot on the turn from 18 yards which flew just wide of the far post.

Hearts survived a siege into the second half and on 46 minutes Stephen Murray watched his shot be deflected from a corner after Nish created the chance 16 yards out.

From Peter Canero's corner on the left Gary McDonald stabbed the ball goalward from six yards, and Alan Maybury booted the ball off the line.

Then Canero attacked down the right and forced his way into the box but Gordon was wide awake and made the save.

Hearts took the lead against the run of play when Stamp's cross field pass offered Kevin McKenna the chance to cross from the right, and Kirk headed home at the near post.

Fifteen minutes later Hearts claimed a penalty when Paul Hartley was blocked by Gordon Greer but Stamp was unconcerned, as he drove the loose ball low into the corner.

Kilmarnock never stopped trying to take something from the match, and with two minutes left Boyd's header from a Canero cross slipped just inches wide of Gordon's right hand post.

Two minutes into injury time, Gary McSwegan drilled in a consolation for Kilmarnock from 14 yards after Nish had carved out the shooting space. But Gordon finished the day as he had started, by clutching Martin Hardie's final effort under the bar.

MAN OF THE MATCH CRAIG GORDON - can be Scotland's number one keeper one day.

HEARTS: GORDON 9, Maybury 6, Pressley 5 (McKenna 6), Webster 5, McCann 5 (Neilson 4), Stamp 6, Kisnorbo 5, Severin 6, Hartley 5, Kirk 6, De Vries 5 (MacFarlane 5).

KILMARNOCK: Dubourdeau 6, Shields 7, Dindeleux 7, Greer 6, Hay 5, Canero 8, McDonald 5 (McSwegan 5), Murray 5 (Hardie 5), Fulton 7, Boyd 6, Nish 6.

MANAGER RATINGS: Levein 7, Jefferies 7.

REFEREE: I Brines 4.

HEARTS KILMARNOC K

5 Shots on target 4

4 Shots off target 4

5 Corners 5

3 Yellow cards 2

0 Red cards 0

ATTENDANCE: 9,881

CAPTION(S):

BEAMING UP A CRACKER: Andy Kirk pounces to put his side ahead yesterday
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 14, 2003
Words:744
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