Hearts show the mark of champions

James Keatings turns the ball past goalkeeper Darren Jamieson to score Hearts' winning goal against Livingston. Picture: Ian Georgeson
James Keatings turns the ball past goalkeeper Darren Jamieson to score Hearts' winning goal against Livingston. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Robbie Neilson and his players will be tucked up in bed on Hogmanay preparing for the Edinburgh derby three days later.

In actual fact, they are entitled to charge up the town en masse and get absolutely panelled. Hearts’ end to 2014 is nothing short of sensational despite everyone at Tynecastle continuing to play it down.

Saturday’s events conspired to send them 15 points clear of Rangers at the top of the Scottish Championship. Yet there will be no celebrating, just quiet satisfaction. James Keatings’ goal secured a third win in a week at Livingston after Hibs’ 4-0 destruction of Rangers worked in favour of their Capital rivals. Livingston manager Mark Burchill is convinced Hearts will win the league, others have said likewise, yet Neilson and his players remain focused only on the next match. The New Year bells can chime as loudly as they like, but no-one at Hearts will be awake to hear them.

They delivered an uninspiring performance in West Lothian but still kept a clean sheet and left with three points. The mark of true champions, many are saying. Keatings had a 13th-minute penalty saved by the outstanding Darren Jamieson, who also denied Jason Holt and Sam Nicholson before conceding the only goal of the game. Billy King, who had an excellent first half, flicked a right-footed cross from the left into the six-yard area where Keatings was lurking to tap home and atone for his penalty miss.

Livingston were the better team in the second half and had Rob Ogleby’s effort disallowed because of a debatable offside call. To an uninformed neutral, this would have looked nothing like a top-versus-bottom encounter. Hearts struggled to impose themselves in the second period despite Prince Buaben hitting the post with a header. However, no title can be won without resilience and that is a commodity the Tynecastle side do not lack.

“It wasn’t our usual performance but three points is the same in every game. That’s the most important thing,” said King. “I think titles are won in games like this when it is more difficult. At the start of the season we were winning by three and four goals. These are different performances now and it shows we can put in the hard work to grind out results as well as playing nice football at times.”

Hibs’ victory over Rangers may well have provided the motivation for Hearts to dig in when that second half became difficult. “Rangers are second so when Hibs beat them that spurred us on to go 15 points clear,” continued King. “It motivated us for the game and we ground out a nice result. I was surprised by the Hibs result. I thought it was going to be a tighter game but we just need to keep concentrating on ourselves.

“Our mindset this season hasn’t changed. We just keep looking to win games. The first half of the season is done and we’ve drawn two and won the rest, which is brilliant. The second half of the season starts against Hibs and we have to keep that going.

“I don’t think it [the Hibs-Rangers result] takes the pressure off. All derbies are the same. We’ll go into the game not thinking about the lead. We want to win it the same as every game this season. At Tynecastle the atmosphere is electric. Everyone will be buzzing because it’s just a different game altogether against Hibs at Tynecastle. Everyone will be up for it and we can’t wait.

“Hibs started off a wee bit slow but in recent weeks they’ve picked up really well. They’re a good attacking team and you can see with the Rangers result it’s going to be a difficult game against them.”

The theme of this game was the overwhelming support Hearts brought to Livingston. More than 7000 Jambos made the journey and comandeered three of the four stands at the Energy Assets Arena. It was more akin to a home match for those in maroon, with Livingston’s support housed in the main stand only.

“It was a bit different with more than 7000 Hearts fans there taking up three stands,” said King. “It gave us great motivation with the fans spurring us on. It helped us. It just felt like we were playing at home. It was an immense travelling support.”

Neilson declared his delight at the end of a week in which Hearts have won three games – against Alloa, Cowdenbeath and Livingston – scored five goals and conceded none. “I thought we played some great stuff in the first half,” he said. “Along with the goal, we had the chances to get another two or three, and I think nervousness crept into our play in the second half. However, we defended well and kept another clean sheet, so there’s plenty to be happy with.

“At the start of the week, we knew we had three tricky games against tough, hard-to-beat sides in Alloa, Cowdenbeath and Livingston, and that we’d face a really difficult task in getting nine points from those games, but we’ve managed it so that’s fantastic.”

The head coach did not feel the Hibs-Rangers result was a factor in the victory. Again, he reiterated the need for Hearts to maintain momentum into the new year. “The Hibs game was irrelevant to us,” he continued. “Other than giving the players the chance to extend their lead, it wasn’t a factor in my mind. We were focusing on Livingston and it just so happened a chance for us to extend our lead to 15 points appeared.

“It’s great for the players to get that boost, but that kind of lead can easily be eaten away with slack play and mistakes, so it’s imperative that we keep our focus. There are still 18 games to go but we know if we win the rest of our games we’ll win the league.”