YELLS of “shooooooooooot” bellowed around Tynecastle as Alim Ozturk strode forward with the ball.
One lash of his powerful right foot and another screamer was in the net. Just the 30 yards this time, but sufficient to secure three points against Raith Rovers. This is becoming a welcome habit for Hearts fans.
After spending the last two weeks watching endless reruns of Ozturk’s 40-yard equaliser against Hibs, there is now another beauty for Hearts fans to pore over. The Turk is officially a cult hero with supporters just five months into his Hearts career. In the corridor outside the manager’s office on Saturday evening, he was the man in demand for photographs and autographs.
Ozturk’s winning goal was something to savour on a momentous day at Tynecastle. A commemorative centenary afternoon took place to honour those who died during World War I. Hearts and Raith both lost players in the conflict and came together to deliver a fitting tribute in front of more than 16,000 fans.
It would have been understandable had this game started slowly after such a poignant build-up, including pre-match bagpipes and a minute’s silence. However, Ozturk didn’t mess about and lashed his goal home after just five minutes’ play. He collected a pass near the halfway line and stepped forward unchallenged until he unleashed a swerving drive 30 yards out. David McGurn, the Raith goalkeeper, couldn’t stop the awkward and dipping effort as the rain poured down and it squirmed past him into the net.
“It was another lucky strike from him,” smiled the Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson. That was a veiled reference to his Hibs counterpart Alan Stubbs, who said after Ozturk’s equaliser against Hibs that, “the lad will hit another 999 shots and none of them will be on target”.
“He does it a lot in training and practices it a lot. We’ve tried to work on it because teams like Raith can be difficult to break down. If you have a centre-half who can step forward and hit from distance then somebody has to come out and confront him. If they don’t then he’ll shoot on goal.”
The Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander was behind the flight of the ball and testified to its difficulty for McGurn.
“They were telling him to shoot so he took it on board. I was right behind it and the ball was moving all over the place,” he explained. “I’ve got a lot of sympathy with the goalkeeper because it was a horrible ball to try and save. In these conditions, the ball is like a bar of soap.
“We were delighted with Alim’s strike at Easter Road as it saved us from a defeat. He’s obviously full of confidence so he’s tried it again. It was a great strike and it’s won us the game. If he feels confident and it opens up for him, then it’s fair enough to have a strike.”
But for Ozturk’s opportunism, Raith would have taken a deserved point back to Kirkcaldy. This was a game of few clear chances in which the visitors were commendably resilient and well organised. They stifled Hearts’ threat well although lacked penetration in the final third.
The hosts showed good ball retention but were similarly toothless up front, with top scorer Osman Sow not risked on a heavy pitch due to a tight thigh.
“It’s a massive three points but I thought we were poor,” continued Alexander. “If I’m really honest, I thought Raith deserved something.
“They made it really difficult for us to play and all credit to them. We were hanging on a wee bit at the end. We know we can play better but, when you look back at the end of the season, it’s a fantastic three points.”
Neilson agreed. “I thought we started the game quite well but after we got the goal we became a wee bit selfish.
“We didn’t make the right runs. Everyone wanted the ball but not in the right areas. That suited Raith Rovers.
“They sat in and we never really got in behind them to penetrate enough. We tried to change things but it wasn’t happening for us.
“It’s still another three points and it gives us things to work on.
“I hoped we would build on the early goal but it didn’t happen. Raith are a good team coming into a big environment and there was the whole Remembrance thing so it can be difficult for players to focus. It’s three points so we’ll now focus on Falkirk and hope to get another three there.”
Grant Murray saw his Raith side obliterated by Hearts at Stark’s Park in August in a 4-0 defeat. Saturday was a huge improvement and the visiting manager could not conceal his dejection at the final result. “Overall we’re a bit disappointed. We’ve ran the league leaders so close,” he said.
“We had a gameplan because I’ve seen Hearts destroy teams this season. They’re top of the league and rightly so. We had to try and frustrate them as they’re scoring a lot of goals. I thought we did frustrate them. Anything that hurt us was from a distance. I thought our defence was outstanding and we were more rattling them in the second half.”
On the goal, Murray added: “We’ve seen him (Ozturk) do it but I’m disappointed we didn’t get someone out to press it. We worked on being compact but the lad had a pop from distance and I think conditions helped him. David’s been fantastic for us and, apart form that effort, he didn’t have much to deal with.”
Raith left former Hearts striker Christian Nade on the bench as he recovers from an ankle problem.
Surprisingly, he wasn’t risked late in the game as they chased an equaliser. With Kevin Moon and Liam Fox dynamic and aggressive in midfield, they more than held their own.
Ozturk was the obvious standout for Hearts but another dominant midfield display by Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben was notable. Brad McKay was playing his first match since August and would have been encouraged by keeping a clean sheet alongside Ozturk in central defence.
Hearts needed more creativity in the final third, though. Soufian El Hassnaoui was replaced by James Keatings, returning from a five-week injury lay-off, in the second half, and Jason Holt also came on.
When Adam Eckersley limped off after a bang on the hip, it left the hosts to play the last few minutes with ten men. All three substitutes had been used, the last being 18-year-old forward Robbie Buchanan.
“I was pleased for Robbie,” said Neilson. “We had Sean McKirdy on the bench as well. He’s a 16-year-old who’s just come in full-time.
“Robbie has been in a year now and he’s been doing fantastically well. He gives us an option up front.
“He works hard, he’s got good technique and good ability. It’s pleasing that we can give these guys games.”
Of course, the weekend was about much more than just football even though Hearts maintained their unbeaten league record. After a poignant afternoon at Tynecastle, their entire first-team squad attended the World War I memorial service at Haymarket yesterday. “It’s a massive event and a huge part of the club,” said Neilson. “The players and fans all know about it so Saturday and Sunday were big days for us. It’s good to be a part of it.”