IT was not only the obtrusive presence of the adjacent cemetery that contributed to the funereal atmosphere at East End Park yesterday evening.
For all that Jim Jefferies and his Dunfermline Athletic players protested after this defeat that they could still salvage their SPL status, it is growing increasingly difficult for those affiliated to the Fife club to deny the reality of their predicament.
Six points separate last season's first division champions from Hibernian with five matches remaining, a gap which would become a chasm should their relegation rivals overcome Motherwell at Easter Road this afternoon. Still without a home win all season, and without one anywhere in 11 games, it is hard to envisage a scenario in which Jefferies can engineer an act of escapology, despite his relentless positivity. "While there are 15 points to play for we have to keep believing," he said, opting to overlook the defensive fragility that caused the concession of two soft goals in four minutes just after the interval. "We have to look at how we played in the first half and take confidence from that."
Granted, having spoken during the week of the players' enthusiasm, there was a certain resolve about Dunfermline, even if they struggled to summon the quality to exploit their territorial ascendancy. An eagerness to play short, sharp passes was perhaps predicated on the isolation of Andy Kirk in attack but for all that they dominated, clear opportunities were scarce; Kirk heading over after Austin McCann's run and cross and David Graham's deflected shot skidding wide.
Beyond that, though, Jefferies' side were impotent. Substitute Joe Cardle did spark a frantic final few minutes when his dangerous delivery was flashed into his own goal by Marius Zaliukas, but Hearts were obdurate enough to preserve the points. That four-minute spurt at the beginning of the second half was sufficient to earn them a fourth win in five matches and move them to within six points of Motherwell in third place.
With a William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final engagement with Celtic looming next Sunday, Paulo Sergio omitted both Andy Webster and Craig Beattie lest they aggravate minor niggles, but was able to savour influential contributions by each of their replacements; Gary Glen scoring the first and Darren Barr playing a part in the second. "We didn't do ourselves justice in the first half; we weren't moving quickly enough or showing for the ball as we have been," said coach Gary Locke. "But we were much better in the second half and I think we were in control."
That the final 40-odd minutes became a canter for the visitors would have been unimaginable at the break, given just how abject Hearts' play had been, yet the ferocity with which they emerged was simply too much for Dunfermline to handle. Noticed was served when the maligned Chris Smith was forced to produce an astounding reaction stop to thwart a Rudi Skacel lash but that resistance was to last mere seconds as Glen found the net from an acute angle.
A further concession from the home side put the outcome beyond doubt four minutes later. Ryan McGowan redirected an Ian Black free-kick across goal and, although Alex Keddie initially swiped clear from under his own crossbar, the defender could only nudge over the line under pressure from Barr when the ball was returned.
"I told them at half-time Hearts would be getting their backsides booted and would come out fired up and that we would have to deal with that but instead we lost two quick goals," bemoaned Jefferies. "In the position we are in, we can't do that."