Around this point last year, several Hearts players, buoyed by a strong campaign in which they were well on their way to finishing third in the Premiership, were making noises about closing the gap on Celtic and mounting a genuine challenge for the title this term.
Events in the intervening period, however, have made a mockery of such a notion. Ever since giving the Parkhead side a fright with a spirited opening-day-of-the-season display in a 2-1 defeat at Tynecastle eight months ago, the two teams have effectively headed in opposite directions.
While Hearts have embarked on a campaign afflicted by inconsistency and transition, Celtic, who showed frailty under Ronny Deila last term, have kicked on to another level with Brendan Rodgers at the helm and yesterday they sealed a title that has rarely been in any doubt since last summer. Having finished a relatively modest 21 points clear of the third-placed Jambos last term, the Glasgow side currently stand a remarkable 45 points ahead of the fifth-placed Tynecastle side with eight games still to play.
Yesterday’s match in the Edinburgh sunshine merely emphasised the gulf between two teams clearly operating in entirely different ball parks as Celtic overcame a slow start to romp to an emphatic victory. Of course, it has long since been accepted that Hearts – and every other Scottish side, for that matter – are currently in no position to challenge Rodgers’ rampant team over the course of a season. However, the Hearts support – many of whom deserted their team long before the end yesterday – were still entitled to expect that their team would be able to challenge the likes of Aberdeen and Rangers and comfortably hold off a St Johnstone team operating on a significantly lower budget.
As things stand, Hearts are an eye-watering 20 points adrift of the Dons, ten behind Rangers and two beneath Saints, whom they meet in Perth on Wednesday. The beleaguered Edinburgh side have lost five of their last six games, won only one of their last eight and are now reeling from their heaviest home defeat in a league match since being infamously smashed 7-0 by Hibs 44 years ago. This wretched scenario wasn’t in the script when Hearts sat second after defeating Rangers 2-0 a little over four months ago. Captain Perry Kitchen, who returned to the starting line-up yesterday for the first time since being substituted at half-time in the Scottish Cup defeat by Hibs in February, is aware of the growing sense of despondency among the fanbase, but is adamant Hearts still have enough about them to salvage their season by reclaiming fourth place – and a potential route into the Europa League – from St Johnstone.
“Our form is certainly not great but there is still a lot to play for,” said the American. “There is always a danger of the season slipping but we have the right guys here. We just need to figure it out, and we will. That starts Wednesday.”
For all that Hearts ultimately went down meekly against a side intent on enjoying their day in the Gorgie sun, the hosts were the better team in the first quarter of the match. Until Scott Sinclair bagged two magnificent goals in the space of three minutes midway through the first half, Hearts had looked the likelier side. Kitchen admits this double whammy knocked the stuffing out of his side. “That’s kind of what it felt like,” he said. “We had the momentum and things seemed to be swinging our way. Again, though, they are a championship-winning team and basically they turned the game with one chance.”
The champions signalled their intent when they had the ball in the net after two minutes but the linesman’s flag was already up by the time Patrick Roberts stroked a pass from Sinclair beyond Jack Hamilton. Hearts, who were without Arnaud Djoum through injury, got their first opening of the match in the sixth minute when the ball broke to Jamie Walker 25 yards out but the midfielder rolled his shot harmlessly wide. The hosts went closer three minutes later when Esmael Goncalves cut in from the left and drilled in a low shot from the edge of the box which tested Craig Gordon. Hearts’ supporters, many of whom had been dreading the prospect of their off-form team facing Rodgers’ rampant side, had been given reason for encouragement in the early stages and Goncalves threatened again when he was put clean through on goal by Walker in the 16th minute, but Gordon made an excellent save to deny the Portuguese forward.
The home side were given a reminder of Celtic’s threat a minute later when Callum McGregor knocked a close-range volley wide before Hearts defender Krystian Nowak had a header from a Don Cowie corner scrambled behind by Gordon.
However, the hosts’ promising opening quarter ultimately counted for little as they fell behind to an excellent Celtic goal in 24 minutes. Tierney fed Sinclair on the left, just inside the box, and the former Manchester City and Swansea City attacker played a rapid one-two with Roberts before smashing a lethal strike high beyond Hamilton.
Three minutes later, the visitors doubled their lead after more sublime play between Roberts and Sinclair. Roberts produced a magnificent piece of skill to create space for himself and slipped the ball through for Sinclair, who rasped his shot past the exposed Hamilton from just inside the box.
Celtic thought they had extended their lead in the 51st minute when James Forrest’s cross was turned into his own net by Tasos Avlonitis, who was stretching to stop the ball reaching the offside Sinclair at the far post. Any grievance the visitors may have felt at this decision was banished four minutes later when Armstrong drove in a powerful low strike from just outside the penalty area. Celtic struck again in the 61st minute as Roberts curled a sensational left-footed shot from the angle of the box high beyond Hamilton and in at the far post.
Sinclair sealed his hat-trick with seven minutes left when he slammed in a penalty after being fouled by Nowak. The Celtic players then rubbed their beleaguered hosts’ noses in it by performing a celebratory huddle in front of Hamilton before the match restarted. This was a memorable day for those in green and white and another eminently forgettable afternoon in this increasingly demoralising campaign for Hearts.