Eleven games remaining and six wins will secure Hearts the title. Provided they and Rangers win every game until both meet at Ibrox on April 5, victory that day would bring the Scottish Championship trophy to Tynecastle.
Whenever promotion is finalised – and there is little doubt Hearts will finish first – they will look back with gratitude at a gritty late win in Dumfries.
The magnitude of Saturday’s events was not lost on head coach Robbie Neilson as the winning goal trickled into Zander Clark’s net in front of a packed Terregles Street terracing at Palmerston Park. The mass of visiting fans erupted, rejoicing a goal which was more messy than mesmerising. The making of it didn’t matter. What it stands for is colossal.
To say this was one of Hearts’ most crucial wins of the season is not overstating the situation. A 1-1 draw would have been no disaster, but winning away at Queen of the South with a goal six minutes from the end is the stuff of champions.
Genero Zeefuik’s strike deflected off Chris Higgins and away from goalkeeper Clark to secure a priceless 2-1 victory. The noise from the away end told you everything you needed to know about what it meant.
Only Hibs and Cowdenbeath have won at Palmerston so far this season and Queens are on course for a play-off place. There is still a fair bit of football to be played but, further up the table, Hearts are within smelling distance of the league title. It was hunger and desire as much as anything which pushed them towards Saturday’s victory.
They went 1-0 behind to Danny Carmichael’s goal but recovered with a scintillating Billy King strike to ensure a level scoreline at the interval. The second period belonged to the visitors, who were uneasy and unconvincing in the first up until King’s equaliser.
Inspired by the outstanding Adam Eckersley and dominant Miguel Pallardo, they attacked at will. Creativity let them down, though, and clear chances were rare until Eckersley scampered up the left on 84 minutes. His cross found Zeefuik for a tame left-footed shot which hit Higgins and was diverted into the net.
“This is a big result for us,” said midfielder Morgaro Gomis. “The manager is saying not to panic when we go behind. I thought we did better in the second half than the first but Queen of the South made it hard for us. It’s good that we can win games even though we aren’t playing the way we played at the beginning of the season. We aren’t winning 4-0 or 5-0 but a win is a win.
“We’ve been behind before, against Hibs twice, and we have to be patient. It’s hard to come to Queen of the South and win games. I think they will be in the play-offs at the end of the season. There is still a long way to go in the league but, if we keep winning, we should be okay.”
Neilson further emphasised that the title is now in sight for Hearts. “It’s a huge victory for us. This was the game for me where I thought if we won it would be a huge step towards the title,” he said. “People are looking for us to slip up. Queen of the South are a fantastic team. If they manage to get into the play-offs I think there’s a good chance they’ll cause an upset. Three points is great for us.
“The first half was pretty even. I was pleased because the players showed a lot of spirit to get back into the game. Not a lot of teams win at Palmerston. I think it’s only ourselves, Hibs and Cowdenbeath who have won there. To go a goal down but to continue to keep the spirit was important. We dominated the second half without creating a lot of chances. I thought we probably deserved the win. I was never worried about it at 1-0. We had a lot of time to get back into it. We were a bit too direct in the first half hour.
“We spoke during the week about trying to be slightly more direct but I think we took it a bit literally. Every time we got the ball we put it in behind and that doesn’t suit us. We sorted it at half-time and started passing it into good areas again. We got the three points, which is massive for us.”
Since losing their unbeaten league run against Falkirk last month, Hearts have responded with four successive victories. “In a way, the Falkirk game, you never like getting beaten but it was good to finally get [the unbeaten record] off our backs,” admitted Neilson.
“Every press conference was about, ‘when are you going to get beat? Who is going to beat you?’ Every team we played against were desperate to be the first ones to beat us. That was their focus.
“It’s done now and we just focus game to game. I don’t get asked those questions any more and neither do the players. There’s less motivation for the opposition players as well, which is good. I knew we would never go the whole season undefeated so I was glad we got it out of the way and I’m glad the way we responded.”
For the second time this season, manager James Fowler felt Queens were unfortunate against Hearts. They lost 3-0 at home to Neilson’s side in October despite being the better team in the first half.
Saturday brought similar frustration after Carmichael’s opening goal was overhauled. They almost snatched a draw in the dying seconds when goalkeeper Clark charged forward for a corner and headed narrowly wide.
“When you see how the second Hearts goal goes in from a deflection, we’re a bit hard done to,” said Fowler. “We restricted Hearts to few chances in the second half and we had a few ourselves late in the game. Zander was unlucky at the end with his header from the corner. We’re delighted with the work rate and we need the same effort and application in the coming weeks.”