How the tables have turned. It was a little over four months ago that, on their previous visit to Tynecastle, a carefree and vibrant Kilmarnock side were riding roughshod over an utterly beleaguered Hearts team.
As Gary Locke’s burgeoning young side produced their most resounding victory of the season by some distance yesterday, their Boxing Day capitulation at the hands of Allan Johnston’s team – the nadir of Hearts’ league campaign – felt like a distant memory.
Hearts truly were at rock bottom when that 4-0 trouncing by Killie, their fifth defeat on the spin, left them utterly bereft of hope in their draining quest to avoid relegation. Slowly but surely, however, the Jambos have risen from the wreckage of that demoralising December blitzing, to the point where they are ending the season as the form team in the Premiership.
Over the last 14 games, since mid-January, only Celtic have collected more points than Hearts; over the last six matches, no top-flight club has equalled their tally of 16 points from a possible 18. During that run, they have scored 16 goals and conceded only four. Without their debilitating 15-point deduction, this ultra-young team would now be sitting eighth in the Premiership, ahead of four rivals, including Hibs, who can call on significantly more experienced squads. Victories in their remaining two fixtures and they would have accumulated enough points to finish seventh in the hypothetical event that the penalty were removed.
The four-game winning run they are currently enjoying is their longest since the winter months of 2010. In addition, this was the first time they had hit five in a match since the 2012 Scottish Cup final victory over Hibs. From whichever angle you look at it, Hearts are riding the proverbial crest of a wave.
For all that Kilmarnock were rank rotten yesterday, that shouldn’t detract from how impressive the Tynecastle side were. Hearts would have given plenty other Premiership teams the runaround with this swashbuckling performance.
Ryan Stevenson may have been the star of the show as he hit a first-half hat-trick and then laid on both of his side’s goals after the break, but this was far from a one-man demolition job. There were excellent displays all over the pitch by those wearing maroon jerseys, with Callum Paterson in particular running the three-goal hero close with a magnificent marauding display from right-back.
While Stevenson was the headline-hogger, Paterson was the tone-setter for yesterday’s victory. A couple of rampaging early surges from halfway roused the crowd and got Kilmarnock on the back foot from the outset. From the moment Stevenson, in the 11th minute, struck his low free-kick from the corner of the penalty box which deflected off Kris Boyd on its way past Craig Samson, Hearts never looked likely to relinquish control.
They doubled their lead in 24 minutes when Stevenson forced home a shot from the edge of the box after Vitalijs Maksimenko made a hash of clearing his initial effort. The Kilmarnock supporters in the Roseburn Stand responded by taunting their own manager with chants of “Allan Johnston, you’re out of your depth” as their team’s relegation play-off concerns intensified.
Locke later branded the heckling of his friend and former colleague “a disgrace”. It was harrowing and humiliating stuff for the former Hearts hero to endure at his old stomping ground, and it was only going to get worse.
After Boyd, a Hearts signing target, saw a low angled strike tipped behind by Jamie MacDonald, the hosts set about sealing the points before half-time. Stevenson had a chance to complete his treble in 42 minutes when Billy King surged into the box and fed the former Ayr United player, unmarked eight yards out, but Samson palmed his shot behind for a corner.
The chance to become the first Hearts player to score a first-half hat-trick since Iain Ferguson achieved the feat in 1988 wasn’t going to elude Stevenson, though. After playing a pass from his own half out to King on the left, the 29-year-old sprinted wholeheartedly into the danger area and slid in to force home the winger’s driven cross.
Stevenson went close to his fourth eight minutes after the break when he flicked a Nicholson pass against the outside of the post from 15 yards out. Unable to become the first Hearts player to score four goals in one game since Mark de Vries did the damage against Hibs in 2002, Stevenson instead set about helping others get in on the act.
In 55 minutes, he sent King clear with a perfectly-arced crossfield pass and the teenager made no mistake in smashing a low shot beyond Samson from 12 yards out for his third goal in six games.
Five minutes later, Hearts finished their scoring for the afternoon as Paterson pinged a pass out to Stevenson on the right and then showed incredible desire to get into the box and slide in ahead of two of his team-mates to convert the resulting cutback. It was the 19-year-old’s tenth goal of the season. Aside from the legendary Rudi Skacel – in both 2010-11 and 2011-12 – no Hearts player has scored more goals in a campaign since Andrius Velicka hit 14 in the 2007-08 season.
The last half-hour was a formality for Hearts as they made sure of their third clean-sheet victory in six games. It was little more than the centre-backs, Danny Wilson and Dylan McGowan, deserved for another commanding performance. After Stevenson was given a standing ovation when replaced by Jamie Hamill with a few minutes left, the whole team took the acclaim of their buoyant support as they went on a lap of honour at full time.
They still have another home game to play, against Partick Thistle on Wednesday, but, such has been the strength of the bond between Hearts and their supporters this season, Locke and his players wanted to make sure they got the chance to thank those younger fans who might not be able to get along on a school night.
They may already have started indulging the end-of-season pleasantries, but there’s still no sign of Locke’s lion-hearted young side winding down. With a homegrown team prospering under the inspirational leadership of a diehard Jambo, it is hard to escape the feeling that something pretty special is brewing in Gorgie.