Boldness and foresight are key features of recent managerial decisions at Hearts. Saturday’s dramatic 2-1 win at Partick Thistle owed everything to such courage. That thought was inescapable watching the club’s coach speed off down Firhill Road on a balmy Saturday evening.
Tony Watt scored a last-minute winner after an audacious summer move brought him north to Tynecastle on a season-long loan from Charlton Athletic. The striker’s dynamism was obvious in his previous four games, but the timing of his first Hearts goal merely underlined the value of his capture.
Callum Paterson sprung to power a header into the Partick Thistle net to put his team 1-0 ahead on 16 minutes. He could easily have been debuting for Wigan Athletic against Queens Park Rangers. The Lancashire side lodged two offers for the Scotland defender in the previous seven days, the latter a £300,000 up-front payment with a string of add-ons potentially leading to a £700,000 total in time.
Both bids were refused. The Hearts hierarchy steadfastly believe Paterson is of more value if kept until the end of his contract next May. He illustrated why with a dominant display and a fine goal in Glasgow.
Centre-back John Souttar was equally impressive. His £120,000 purchase from Dundee United in February was another bold move by Tynecastle officials, for he wasn’t a regular in a struggling United team at that time. His progress since more than justifies the transfer fee.
The teenager made several block tackles to thwart Thistle during Saturday’s first half and stroked the ball around with confidence all day. He will play for Scotland Under-21s against Macedonia in Gorgie on Friday night, but there is an increasing argument for his inclusion in the full squad. Particularly given the lack of emerging central defenders at that level.
Watt, Paterson and Souttar were all key protagonists in a win which propels Hearts to third place in the Ladbrokes Premiership after four matches. Director of football Craig Levein and head coach Robbie Neilson may have their critics, but their signing policy is extremely astute, even allowing for the odd Kenny Anderson.
Paterson is already in Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad for Sunday’s opening World Cup qualifier in Malta. Souttar and Watt will surely join him soon if they sustain current performance levels.
“John’s a great player, it’s hard to believe he’s 19. That’s ridiculous,” said Hearts midfielder Perry Kitchen, a tireless worker at Firhill. “He definitely has the talent, the size, the athleticism and the passing ability to really do well at international level. He could absolutely make the step up. He’s a great talent and has a great mentality as well, which is huge the higher you go. I think it’s only a matter of time for him.”
Watt already holds one Scotland cap but remains best known for scoring in Celtic’s Champions League win over Barcelona three years ago. “He told me about it a few times,” joked Kitchen. “That’s obviously a big moment in his career so he lets us hear about it. Not many people can say they’ve done that so it’s an awesome milestone. He has great talent as well. A very good player.”
More than 1700 fans travelled west with Hearts and were rewarded with a thoroughly entertaining afternoon’s football. Quality passing from both teams was on show, scoring chances were aplenty, and there were a list of players on form. Watt, Paterson, Souttar and Kitchen were Hearts’ standouts, whilst Thistle’s Chris Erskine, Ade Azeez and Liam Lindsay also impressed.
Lindsay’s header shortly after the break cancelled out Paterson’s opener. He climbed for a header which appeared to hit the underside of Jack Hamilton’s crossbar and bounce down over the goal line. To eliminate doubt, Azeez forced the loose ball into the net.
Hearts dominated most of the second half and, just when it appeared they couldn’t source a winning goal, Watt pounced. The Thistle goalkeeper Tomas Cerny punched Don Cowie’s cross clear and ended up on the ground amid a cluster of bodies. Kitchen charged in for the loose ball at the edge of the penalty area and forced it through to Watt. He steered it into the net from an acute angle to decide the game.
“We’re happy with the three points. We made it difficult for ourselves but we found a way to win. That’s the sign of a good team,” said Kitchen. “These types of wins are the ones you remember at the end of the season. A 5-1 win like last week against Inverness is great but the way we stuck together, stayed focused and didn’t give up was huge.
“I was wondering if I got an assist for the second goal but it doesn’t really matter. Tony put it in the net, so that’s all that matters. I think it was coming for him, he hadn’t found the net but to get it in that fashion, it’s a huge result and I’m really happy for him.”
Hearts now sit two points behind league leaders Celtic, who have a game in hand. Catching the Parkhead club is the priority. “Definitely, that’s our goal,” added Kitchen. “We’re not starting the season saying: ‘Let’s finish in the third place.’ You want to win trophies but we know Celtic are a great side. That’s the goal, for sure.”