Hearts warmed up for Sunday’s Edinburgh derby with a comfortable victory over Alloa on a night when several squad players were given game time at Tynecastle.
Goals from Callum Paterson, Danny Wilson and Soufian El Hassnaoui were sufficient to return the hosts to winning ways following defeat at Ibrox. They now cross the city this weekend hoping to maintain an unbeaten record against Hibs this season.
A rather timid first-half display preceded a much more purposeful second 45 minutes for Hearts. Alloa, under new manager Danny Lennon, were unfortunate to be 1-0 down at the interval due to Paterson’s deflected strike. Wilson’s header minutes after the restart ensured there would be no upset, whilst El Hassnaoui’s third was an added bonus as well as the best strike of the evening.
Hearts cruised through the second half if the truth be told, perhaps with Sunday’s encounter already in their minds. Alloa finished the match with ten men as Mark Docherty was ordered off for two bookable offences in the final minute of regulation time.
Adam Eckersley was restored to the Hearts side after missing the weekend defeat at Ibrox. His contract will not be renewed but head coach Robbie Neilson believes he can still play a vital part before the season ends. Also starting last night were Kenny Anderson, El Hassnaoui, James Keatings, Brad McKay and goalkeeper Jack Hamilton. Those they replaced, such as Alim Ozturk and Genero Zeefuik, were being kept in reserve for Sunday’s assignment at Easter Road.
Alloa arrived at Tynecastle desperate to atone for their 4-0 thrashing by Livingston in the Petrofac Cup final on Sunday. Lennon dropped striker Michael Chopra to the substitutes’ bench as he set about trying to gain points to help his new club move out of the Championship’s relegation play-off place.
The visitors formed a guard of honour as league champions Hearts emerged from the tunnel, but it was Alloa who began the match with more purpose. Their five-man midfield set about hustling the opposition and, when in possession, sent quick balls forward to lone striker Liam Buchanan. Genuine goal attempts remained at a premium, though, in what was a fairly low-key atmosphere.
Applause broke out in memory of Hearts fan and former soldier Shaun Cole, who died recently in Miami. The hosts tried to settle into a passing rhythm as the midway point of the first half arrived, but they relinquished possession to easily and therefore toiled for shots at Craig McDowall’s goal. The game was being played very much in the middle third of the pitch, with no-one making any serious headway at either end.
Eventually, with 28 minutes gone, Wilson strode forward for a low cross which Keatings drove against a post. McDowall was then forced down low to his left to stop a distant drive by Morgaro Gomis. From a short corner on 33 minutes, Billy King set off on a dribbling run along the goal line but his final shot was too high. As was Gomis’ 25-yard attempt minutes later.
Just as it seemed the interval would arrive with the scoreline blank, Paterson intervened. He took possession in an advanced area on the right and cut inside for a left-footed drive from more than 20 yards out. The ball deflected off Kyle Benedictus as it flew into the net with McDowall deceived by the slight change in trajectory. Hearts were ahead at an ideal time as half-time approached, although they would have been 2-0 up had someone gambled on Billy King’s tantalising low cross just before the break.
There was noticeably greater impetus in the home side’s play at the start of the second half, possibly after some harsh words from Neilson in the dressing room. It took just four minutes for them to add a second goal. Keatings’ inswinging corner was headed into the net past the flailing arm of McDowall by Wilson. It was a textbook finish from the club captain and one which put the outcome of this game beyond any doubt.
McDowall produced a decent parry to stop Sam Nicholson’s header from Paterson’s deep cross. By then, Alloa were beginning to tire. Hearts stroked the ball around with confidence, with Hamilton only occasionally tested. He would have been grateful to see Iain Flannigan’s low shot whistle narrowly wide of his right post on 66 minutes, however.
The third goal came from El Hassnaoui - his first since November after a prolonged absence with an ankle injury. It was a most emphatic finish after Alloa failed to properly clear from their own 18-yard box. The Dutchman saw the ball bounce on the edge of the penalty box and lashed it high beyond McDowall into the net with his left foot.
Alloa introduced Chopra and Isaac Layne in a vain attempt to get back into the game, but Hearts by then were in command and more than capable of seeing the game out. The Spanish midfielder Miguel Pallardo was on in place of Gomis by that point and was the ideal player to keep possession of the ball and control the tempo of the closing stages.
The visitors did force a chance but Layne’s driven effort from 20 yards was inadvertently blocked by team-mate Chopra six yards out. Then came an angled free-kick by Flannigan which clipped the outside of Hamilton’s right post with the keeper scrambling.
The home team continued pressing for another goal in their attempts to reach the 100-goal mark for the season, which Neilson has said remains a target. Their supporters appealed for a penalty when substitute Gary Oliver was challenged and fell inside the box with the ball at his feet.
For Alloa, there was the ignominy of finishing with ten men as Docherty earned a second yellow card for fouling King. He had been booked for grappling with Paterson 15 minutes earlier. For Hearts, the evening ended with a routine 3-0 win and, just as importantly, some decent preparation for the trip to Easter Road.