Substitute Eli Babalj fired Melbourne Heart to a first win in nine games on captain Fred's return to the side as they outlasted a youthful Gold Coast United side at AAMI Park on Friday night.

Frustrated for large parts of the night by a side made up largely of National Youth League graduates, the Heart finally found their goal in the 79th minute through the lively Babalj after he had come close with a trio of chances.

A 56th-substitute, Babalj quickly became the focal point in attack after a listless first half from the home side and slotted home the easiest of chances to record a 1-0 victory after fine interplay from Fred and fellow substitute Matt Thompson.

Both sides entered the clash without a win in 2012 or in their past eight games with the precious three points now lifting the Heart two points ahead of Newcastle into fifth, ahead of their game away to Perth Glory.

Captain Fred returned successfully after a six-week layoff but the contrast between the free-flowing, confident side sitting second in the table some six weeks ago and the indirect, six-placed version he returned to on Friday, would have alarmed the Brazilian.

As the first half drew to a close, you could sense the frustration in the Heart camp just as you could a growing sense of belief from Gold Coast for every minute the home side were kept out.

With Gold Coast counterpart Michael Thwaite suspended, 17-year-old Mitch Cooper controversially deputised as captain.

Coach Miron Bleiberg, suspended for his remarks on that topic during the week, was replaced on the touchline by Mike Mulvey.

And for all the obstacles, it was a gallant performance from the visitors, who started just one player over the age of 23 - Kristian Rees - in a game that didn't reach any great heights.

For all their possession the Heart mustered just two shots on target in the first half.

The Gold Coast played some fearless football early on if only a little cavalier at the back.

Rutger Worm was afforded acres of space by Gold Coast left back Adama Traore in the opening quarter of an hour. Fred spread the ball to the winger time and time again but the cross and a bigger bodied recipient was often left wanting.

For their monopoly of possession, the first shot in anger didn't come until the 21st minute when left-back Craig Goodwin ventured forward.

The youngster snuck down the left and fired a second shot on the volley on 30 minutes moments before Fred scuffed a close-range shot on the fly that had dropped fortuitously over the back of the defence.

Pushing more and more men forward in the second half, the Heart invited United's fleet-footed attacking brigade in.

Golgol Mebrahtu went looking for his first A-League goal and almost found it when he was played through on the break, but he didn't have the composure at the final hurdle.

Substitute Eli Babalj, brought on by the Heart for attacking impetus, and showed slight of foot immediately after his introduction.

After working a fraction of space in the box, he lashed a left-foot shot, but mohawked Gold Coast keeper Brendan White was up to the task.

Colosimo came closest when his header was cleared off the line by Traore on 65 minutes before Babalj sent another warning sign with a quick snap-shot on the turn after Rees had failed to clear.

Babalj was again thwarted by White before Gold Coast's defence was stretched one too many times as their second-half tormentor made no mistake on the fourth time of asking.

Melbourne Heart: 1 (Babalj 79)
Gold Coast United: 0