Journeying back up the M74 on Saturday evening would have been a satisfying experience for Hearts fans.
Bus after bus of supporters travelled home after enjoying a day out in the Dumfriesshire sunshine, watching three fine goals and proclaiming that they and their heroes “shall not be moved”. A few even stayed in the region overnight to make a weekend of it.
Their team is top of the league and resembling a juggernaut, powering onwards and seemingly unstoppable. Perhaps this is fate’s reward for their suffering. A year in administration ravaged their club to the point where Tynecastle almost had to shut its doors forever. Supporters rallied with their own money to keep Hearts alive. They are entitled to feel this is their payback.
In total, 2927 away fans were at Palmerston Park on Saturday. There were more away supporters than home in a healthy crowd of 5534. They came hoping to see their team preserve, and possibly even extend, a six-point lead at the top of the SPFL Championship. By the time they headed back to the central belt, nothing had altered the perception that Hearts are the most efficient side in this league.
Queen of the South away had “potential slip-up” written all over it for Robbie Neilson’s new-look side. The hosts had appointed James Fowler player-manager in midweek and were clearly the better side in the first half. Andy Dowie’s header hit the post and other chances were wasted, hence they trudged down the tunnel 2-0 behind at the interval. Hearts had sprung to life in the final moments of the half, scored twice through Osman Sow and Prince Buaben, and added a third for good measure after the break through Jordan McGhee.
The Tynecastle squad know they are rampant and that fans are revelling in the unbeaten start to the season. They have taken 22 points from the first 24, yet the players are probably the only ones not getting carried away at this stage.
“Once we get going and we get in front, it’s hard to stop us. If we keep that momentum going, we’ll be hard to stop,” admitted winger Billy King. “I think we just take it game by game. We aren’t looking too far ahead. We’ve almost played every team but we’re trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves. We want to keep winning and keep the momentum going.
“We’ve started really well. We knew when the fixtures came out that Queen of the South would be one of the toughest games and we came through it with flying colours. The first half-hour was hard but we came through it. Os came up with that wonder strike and that helped. Then Prince driving through the middle with a bit of magic, or maybe it was a toe poke, but they all count. Those goals gave us confidence. We were professional in the second half and kept the ball.”
Harnessing the feelgood factor and stopping it progressing to over-confidence is a hard balancing act which Neilson is managing well. New signings have helped. One of them, Buaben, produced his finest Hearts performance to date at the weekend. He seemed omnipresent in midfield and was incisive with a surging run to score the second goal.
“The feelgood factor just comes from winning,” continued King. “We’re scoring a lot of goals and that breeds confidence. Last season was difficult because we were losing in most games. This year we’ve brought in different players who have raised the standard. Week by week, we want to keep winning. The standard of the squad has raised significantly from last season because we’ve brought in experience. Morgaro [Gomis] and Prince are quality players, then there’s Alim [Ozturk], Osman and Soufian [El Hassnaoui]. The way we play suits those types of players.”
The opening goal on 37 minutes was shrouded in controversy. Sow received Danny Wilson’s pass to feet, turned his marker and shot from around 18 yards. The ball careered off the underside of the crossbar and bounced down just over the goal line. Referee Brian Colvin instantly signalled for a goal but his assistant, David Dunne, didn’t. Queen of the South players protested strongly but their efforts to have Sow’s strike disallowed were in vain.
Buaben’s second minutes later finished the match as a contest. He picked up possession and drove forward past several opposition players without being properly challenged. When he reached the edge of the box, he prodded the ball low past the home goalkeeper Zander Clark and into the bottom corner of the net with his toe. It was an instinctive finish from a player not noted for his goalscoring ability.
On the hour mark, Hearts’ third arrived when McGhee cushioned the ball home from close range after King’s teasing cross. The 18-year-old was in the team because Neilson opted not to risk full-backs Callum Paterson or Kevin McHattie on Palmerston Park’s astroturf after recent injuries. McGhee maximised the opportunity.
Neilson also gave Spanish midfielder Miguel Pallardo his debut from off the bench.
Fowler could only regret that his team didn’t take advantage of their first-half superiority. They finished the game looking downbeat but showed enough to suggest they may push for a play-off place. Iain Russell, the former Livingston forward, was their most creative player. Had Dowie’s header hit the net and not the post in the first half it would have been interesting to see how Hearts reacted.
Fowler said he “wasn’t sure” whether Sow’s goal had actually crossed the line in what was a decisive moment in the game. “Our players don’t think it crossed the line,” he explained. “You’re always going to get those kind of protests when it’s so close, and the boy’s hit it from a distance. I think the assistant was level with our last defender at the time. I haven’t had a chance to look back at it. If he’s got it right then it’s a great decision.
“Up until they scored there was only one team in the game. I can’t really remember Hearts creating much of note. I was happy with how the players performed, just disappointed with the result.”