HEARTS secured a monumental victory over ten-man Rangers to move nine points clear at the top of the Scottish Championship.
Jason Holt’s opening goal was supplemented by Jamie Walker’s late penalty after Steven Smith had been red carded in the first half for a late tackle on Callum Paterson.
In what was at times a brutal encounter, Hearts struggled to impose themselves in the first half but took hold of proceedings after the interval. Holt punished a slack clearance with a sublime finish from the edge of the penalty to break the deadlock on 56 minutes. Walker then finished the contest with a well-taken penalty after he was fouled inside the box by former Hearts midfielder Ian Black.
The result increases pressure on the Rangers manager Ally McCoist, who will rue the fact his team did not capitalise on their first-half superiority. They pressed Hearts back but created precious few clear chances and paid the price after the interval playing with one man less.
A predictably frantic start saw both teams trying to assert physical superiority over the other amid an electric atmosphere. This was the first meeting of these two clubs at Tynecastle since April 2012, when Rangers took a comfortable 3-0 win back to Glasgow.
It was the visitors who enjoyed the stronger start as they set about their opponents aggressively. Hearts were forced back and put under pressure every time they had possession of the ball. The aggression spilled over on 21 minutes when Smith slid in late with studs showing on Paterson, sending the young defender into the air. He received an instant red card for serious foul play from referee Craig Thomson.
Despite being down to ten men, Rangers continued harrassing, chasing and pushing forward. Neil Alexander saved Nicky Law’s free-kick and Hearts didn’t force the visiting goalkeeper Steve Simonsen into a save until the 38th minute, when he pushed Alim Ozturk’s 25-yard free-kick to safety. Moments later, a curling effort from Morgaro Gomis from similar distance flew wide of target.
The hosts were finally emerging from their shell and they almost took the lead in the final minute of the first period. The impressive Miguel Pallardo crossed from the right, only for the ball to spin up off Kenny Miller. Brad McKay sent a looping header goalwards as it dropped, forcing Simonsen to touch the ball onto his crossbar.
The second half brought no relent regarding the physical nature of this match. Miller was cautioned for sliding in full bloodied on Kevin McHattie, a challenge which forced the Hearts defender off injured. If anything, it was even more reckless than Smith’s in the first half despite the striker playing the ball first. However, Miller was issued only a yellow card. Minutes later he was substituted to a round of jeers from home supporters.
After replacing Soufian El Hassnaoui with James Keatings, Hearts forced the opening goal. Paterson galloped down the right for the umpteenth time in the game and delivered a cross which Darren McGregor could only clear to the edge of the Rangers penalty area. Waiting with intent was Holt. He connected beautifully to lash the loose ball into the net with the outside of his right foot and set off to celebrate.
Rangers almost equalised within seconds, though. Law connected with a cross from the left and Alexander saved from point-blank range. Substitute Richard Foster slid in for the rebound which was deflected on to the crossbar from a tight angle.
Hearts grew in confidence as the game wore on and Rangers’ energy levels dropped with one man less. That allowed the hosts to play the passing and possession football they had been unable to since kick-off. After Keatings dispossessed Foster in midfield, Billy King drove a dipping shot narrowly wide of Simonsen’s goal from 25 yards.
Rangers fans made clear their displeasure when manager Ally McCoist replaced MacLeod with Kris Boyd. Nicky Clark also came on for the final stages as the Glasgow club chased an equalising goal. However, it was Hearts who scored next to seal the game and three vital points.
Black was penalised for barging Walker in the back inside the penalty box as Hearts counter-attacked. Referee Thomson pointed immediately to the spot, and Walker stepped up to stroke the ball low to Simonsen’s left from 12 yards. With that, the Edinburgh club moved nine points clear at the top of the Scottish Championship.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander; Paterson, Ozturk, McKay, McHattie; Pallardo, Gomis; King, Holt, Walker; El Hassnaoui.
51: Eckersley for McHattie
55: Keatings for El Hassnaoui
83: McGhee for Holt
Unused subs: Gallacher, Nicholson, Buaben, Buchanan.
Rangers (4-4-2): Simonsen; McGregor, McCulloch, Mohsni, Wallace; Macleod, Law, Black, Smith; Daly, Miller.
51: Foster for Miller
80: Boyd for MacLeod
82: Clark for Daly
Unused subs: Robinson, Aird, Templeton, Shiels.
Referee: Craig Thomson.
Scorers: Hearts - Holt (56), Walker (88 pen).