The top teams don’t always have to win by playing beautiful football, and Hearts are proving that point right now.
Robbie Neilson’s men were not at their most attractive on Valentine’s Day, but they still managed to give their supporters the gift of a 20-point lead at the top of the Championship as they edged past ten-man Livingston 1-0 at Tynecastle for their 20th league win of the season. In the end, what more could the Gorgie faithful want from their loved ones?
While their “rivals” for the title in Hibs and Rangers – and that term can be used loosely considering they lag miles behind Hearts – have dropped points when they have dipped below their best this season, the Jambos have not. You won’t hear anyone within Tynecastle saying the championship is won but, barring the most apocalyptic collapse, it is.
Earlier in the season, we saw the swashbuckling, smooth side of Hearts as they swatted away teams with quick, free-flowing, pulsating football. Four-to-five goal scorelines were pretty regular. They are not playing that brand of football any more but, perhaps more admirably, they have found another way to win football matches. They show fight, dig, determination, character, strength. Those characteristics are the more ugly side of champions, but they are just as important.
On Saturday, Hearts were faced with an aggressive Livingston team who came to Tynecastle and put up one hell of a fight. They may be bottom of the league, which is down solely to the five-point deduction thrust upon them for financial misdemeanours in bygone seasons, but they are playing well above their station. They pressed Hearts, harried them, got in their faces and broke forward with intent. By their manager Mark Burchill’s admission, they played one of their best matches of his eight-match tenure, but it wasn’t enough to break Hearts. It would have beaten most other Championship teams, but not the league leaders.
Another footnote to this encounter was that these two teams met the week before and there was plenty of needle in that one. Jason Talbot had caught Sam Nicholson with a head-high tackle – a retrospective red card issued to the Lions skipper ruled him out of this match – and the furore in the media after that “challenge” looked to have fired up Livingston. They played with a purpose and put Hearts under the cosh. It led to a niggly, tetchy affair that resulted in six yellow cards and one red – dished out to Livingston midfielder Nejc Praprotnik.
The Jambos started slowly and Neil Alexander, the Hearts goalkeeper, made a superb save on the ten-minute mark to keep the score at 0-0. Jordan White, who was a menace to Hearts throughout, picked the ball up 20 yards out and thundered a shot towards goal that for all the world looked netbound until Alexander dived across his goal and tipped it away for a corner. Later, when Livingston were down to ten men, they came again, Alexander called upon for more saves while Hearts centre-back pairing of Danny Wilson and Alim Ozturk were continually kept up to their work.
The resolute side of Hearts has not been hailed enough this season and it was again on show here. Wilson and Ozturk may be more cultured defenders than the majority of Championship centre-backs, but when it comes to defending high balls into the box, they did it well here. Miguel Pallardo scrapped like a Trojan in the middle of the park. Prince Buaben, although virtually ineffective going forward, constantly blocked Livi passes forward and did the dirty work in the midfield. Callum Paterson was rarely seen galavanting forward from right-back, as is his desire, but he won every aerial duel as Livingston shelled the hosts’ box.
Hearts, when they did go forward, were far more direct than in the first part of the season. Género Zeefuik held the ball up well enough, although a lot of Hearts’ long balls were clever diagonals to release wingers Kenny Anderson and Jamie Walker. The latter in particular was effective. He’s in a rich vein of form. Ever since his fine goal in the New Year derby against Hibs, Walker has blossomed in confidence. He should have scored on 20 minutes when he burrowed into the box in space, but his low shot was turned over the bar by the outstretched boot of Darren Jamieson, who made three very good saves in the match and had a much better afternoon than his last visit to Tynecastle, a 5-0 drubbing last September.
Walker’s goal, however, was merely delayed. When it came on 40 minutes, it was fortunate, mainly due to a ricochetted clearance that bounced into his path. Walker burst into the box and, as Declan Gallagher made the clearance, the ball cannoned off the Hearts winger and back into his path. With just Jamieson to beat, he showed admirable coolness to round the keeper and then clip home from a tight angle.
Proceedings became a little more heated after the break and referee Alan Muir, who had only booked James Keatings for a late tackle before half-time, dished out a series of yellow cards. First Livi striker Ibra Sekajja was cautioned for a late challenge on Pallardo before White and Ozturk picked up bookings for some handbags in the Livi box. In between all that, Jamieson saved from Keatings and Buaben had an effort deflected wide.
Praprotnik, who perhaps didn’t receive a Valentine’s Day card such was his desire to be issued a yellow one from Muir with a series of fouls, finally got his wish when he was booked for a clumsy tackle on Walker on the hour mark as tempers started to fray further. Pallardo joined the Slovenian in Muir’s book soon after for halting a promising run by Sekajja. Then, from a wicked Burton O’Brien free-kick, Alexander had to look sharp to turn Sives’ header over the bar.
Hearts head coach Neilson, perhaps mindful that the match was becoming more and more scrappy, brought on Morgaro Gomis for Keatings to stiffen up the midfield. It had been an area of the pitch that Hearts failed to dominate and the Senegalese did provide an element of calm in the Jambos’ engine room.
The tetchy nature of it all suggested that all 22 players would not remain on the pitch and that came to fruition on 75 minutes. Praprotnik mistimed yet another tackle, this time on Buaben, and it signalled his early departure for a second yellow card.
With the numerical advantage, Hearts sensed the chance to put the match to bed and almost did minutes later. With Gallagher lying injured in the middle of the pitch, Hearts bombed forward and King’s cross was headed on to his own bar by the fortunate Craig Sives. Walker then nearly scored from the resulting corner as Jamieson scrambled across his goal to parry.
Zeefuik should have made the points safe on 88 minutes when a horribly wayward pass by Livi sub Gary Glen played him in. However, the big Dutchman was too casual and his lazy chip barely left the groud and Jamieson saved. The hosts were forced to hang on as White’s header was clutched by Alexander, but the spirited Lions could not take advantage of a below-par Hearts display.
It was another home sell-out and the Jambos, although perhaps not wholly entertained by jazzy football, were treated to another way of picking up points. The old adage is that winning when playing badly is a sign of champions and that couldn’t be more true here. Neilson’s men chalked up another victory on the road back to the big time and that, in the end, is all that matters. No broken Hearts on Valentine’s Day and, quite frankly, there won’t be any come the end of the season either.