A new era for Hearts, with new owners, new management, a new team and, most crucially, a new mentality.
Previous Tynecastle sides would gratefully have accepted a point after losing a 90th-minute equaliser at Ibrox. Or, worse, conceded again and lost the game entirely. Robbie Neilson’s side look to be built of stronger characters, illustrated by their winning goal seconds after Rangers levelled yesterday.
Danny Wilson’s headed opener set the cat among the pigeons in Glasgow on the opening weekend of the new SPFL Championship. Rangers could not force an equaliser until the 90th minute, when Nicky Law converted Kenny Miller’s headed cross. An example of the new composure instilled within the Hearts squad surfaced seconds later, when new signing Osman Sow calmly slotted a brilliant winning goal past the Rangers goalkeeper, Cammy Bell.
“When Rangers equalised I was thinking, ‘this is our three points’. I still believed,” explained Sow, looking straight-faced and quite content with his afternoon’s work. “I just took a touch, then one touch more, and then I shot. If you work very hard then you get your rewards for it. The atmosphere was great, but all three points is the same in the end. It’s good to get them in as early as possible.”
His contribution was all the more remarkable as this was his first competitive 90 minutes since he left Swedish club Syrianska for Crystal Palace last summer. “I had other opportunities to go back to Sweden this summer [after leaving Palace] but I wanted to make my career in the UK, so I thought this was a good choice.”
Hearts supporters, and Neilson, are certainly grateful for his arrival. Yesterday’s goal was the giant striker’s fifth in five appearances for his new club. “The group have taken Osman in and you can see the quality he’s got,” said Neilson. “I still don’t think he’s quite at it fitness-wise. He didn’t do much of a pre-season but he’s got pace, strength, good technique and an eye for goal. He’ll scare a lot of defenders this year.”
Sow wasn’t the only one to impress in maroon. Billy King and Sam Nicholson were industrious and direct out wide and set up one goal each. Alim Ozturk was a rock of defiance in defence, as was goalscorer Wilson, right. And they had to be, particularly during a first half when it seemed only a matter of time until Rangers took the lead.
Hearts’ distribution from defence was erratic, with goalkeeper Neil Alexander and Ozturk both dispossessed trying to build from the back. The hosts monopolised midfield, but lacked creativity in the attacking third to feed their experienced forwards, Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd. They also had four former Tynecastle players in their starting line-up – Marius Zaliukas, Ian Black, David Templeton and Lee Wallace.
Templeton was fouled persistently and could not make an impact. His headed miss in the first half would have changed the complexion of the match had he converted. Miller’s deflected shot bounced into the winger’s path at the back post, but, unmarked and with the goal gaping, he somehow headed over the crossbar.
The second half was only a few minutes old when Wilson rose to power King’s corner high into Bell’s net from around six yards. If that goal was slightly against the run of play, Hearts used it to take a firm grip, which they didn’t look like releasing. Rangers increased the tempo and introduced Dean Shiels but were unable to open a rigid and well-organised visiting defence.
Alexander suffered a nasty aerial collision with Ozturk on 63 minutes and was stretchered off with a suspected broken cheekbone. Scott Gallacher took his place, one of six visiting players making league debuts.
The final minutes were frantic. As Rangers sought an equaliser, Ozturk blocked efforts by Zaliukas and Miller, while at the other end Prince Buaben spurned a glorious chance to kill the game when one on one with Bell. Law was announced as the sponsor’s man of the match to widespread booing as the home support’s frustration spilled over. Seconds later, he converted those jeers into cheers with the equaliser after Miller headed into his path.
But Hearts weren’t done. Nicholson delivered a reverse pass to Sow, whosped forward, leaving Zaliukas struggling, before firing the ball low into the far corner of the net.
“We knew we were going to come here and be under pressure from the first minute,” said Neilson. “We went ahead and then I was disappointed to lose the equaliser late on. We showed character to turn it round and go and win it. We’ve got a group of winners but the season won’t be defined with one result. There is still a long way to go.
“It’s just another game. It’s good for the players because, next time we come to Ibrox, we will have confidence that we’ve won already. However, this is relentless. It doesn’t matter if you win here then go to Dumbarton or Cowdenbeath and get beaten. It’s the same points so we need to make sure we go again.
“There wasn’t a fault in our team. We were as positive as we could be. In the first half, we didn’t play the ball through the lines as much as we should have but we spoke at half-time and rectified that in the second half.
“Rangers is a huge club so I’m just pleased the players handled the atmosphere. The game had been built up for about six weeks. Everyone was talking about what it was going to be like going to Ibrox. Very few of our players had played here before and it’s a different atmosphere from Parkhead or Easter Road. We handled it well.”
On the day Rangers launched the Sandy Jardine Stand in honour of the former Ibrox and Tynecastle stalwart, McCoist left the stadium less than happy. He complained of “extremely poor defending” by his team and labelled both Hearts goals “soft”. The second arrived just after Darren McGregor replaced Richard Foster. He was still getting into position when Hearts kicked off following the equaliser.
“When we get the equaliser we are looking at a positive reaction for the last five minutes to win the game and it floored everybody,” said McCoist. “They saw a gap because Richard Foster came off and Darren McGregor came on and he wasn’t in his position quick enough. I will need to look at it again. I don’t think he was on the park quick enough for them to take centre. But if he is not on the park we should have stopped the game and not let them take centre until we had regrouped.”
McCoist also said reports of former owner Charles Green possibly returning to Ibrox were “a sideshow we can do without”. In that sense, it is difficult not to feel sympathy with the Rangers manager. Nonetheless, yesterday it was him and his players who became the sideshow as Hearts declared their intent for the season ahead.