The maroon juggernaut is gathering momentum. Two points clear at the top after a flawless start, with the promise of more to come; already these are ominous times for the rest of the Championship.
With hard-fought victories over their two biggest rivals already in the bag, Hearts showed in rainy Kirkcaldy on Saturday that they also have the mental fortitude to make light work of potentially-hazardous matches against the less-illustrious sides in Scottish football’s second tier.
It is nine years since Hearts last won their opening three games of a league campaign. Back in 2005, when Robbie Neilson was out on the pitch instead of cajoling his team along from the technical area, it was the inexplicable sacking of George Burley that effectively destroyed any hope of a tilt at the SPL title. This time round, with the club now seemingly back in stable hands, there is a sense that this early-season invincibility around Hearts can only be breached by complacency or the more-likely scenario of Rangers, their main rivals for the title, building up a head of steam of their own.
Hearts certainly won’t be found wanting in terms of strength in depth. A shrewd summer recruitment drive, allied to the maturing of several young players, has turned what was a threadbare squad last season into one that looks equipped for the rigours of a title challenge. There were mild concerns about how they would cope without suspended striker Osman Sow against Raith Rovers. However, in stepped James Keatings for his first league start of the season, and the former Hamilton Accies forward showed exactly why he was brought to the club by firing an excellent hat-trick to lay the foundations for a comprehensive victory. Unless Neilson opts to go for two strikers against Falkirk on Saturday, Sow now faces a genuine fight to reclaim his place.
It says much about how strong Hearts were in Fife that the energetic and clinical Keatings had genuine rivals for the man-of-the-match award. Captain Danny Wilson was majestic in defence, with former Hearts forward Christian Nade regularly showing his frustration after coming off second-best against the centre-back. With less pressure on the team than last season, the 22-year-old is revelling in the opportunity to carry the ball out of defence.
Ahead of him, Prince Buaben was having his best game in maroon before being forced off by a knock early in the second half. His midfield partner in crime, Morgaro Gomis, strolled through the match with his typical composed elegance as Hearts stifled the life out of a Rovers side who had also won their first two games of the campaign.
As if to emphasise the depth of the squad, Jack Hamilton, the third-choice of their five senior goalkeepers, produced another assured display in just his second appearance for the first team, making a couple of fine saves when finally called upon in the closing quarter of the match. By that stage, the points were already secure.
Despite the fact victory was wrapped up by Keatings’ treble in the first hour, Hearts didn’t have to get out of cruise control to put the game beyond their overwhelmed hosts. Indeed, head coach Neilson, the taskmaster that he is, admitted some of their play at times had been “slack”. They’ll take some stopping if they can get themselves into top gear.
The first half was fairly nondescript stuff. Although Hearts had marginally the better of it, it was only Keatings’ ruthlessness, seizing upon two rare sights of goal, that had them in command by the interval. The first came in 13 minutes when he followed up to smash into an empty net from two yards out after Sam Nicholson’s backheeled attempt from a Billy King cutback had been scrambled off the line by ex-Hearts right-back Jason Thomson.
After a relentless ten-minute downpour which had Stark’s Park resembling the scene of a mass Ice Bucket Challenge, Keatings struck again. Once more, it came off a rebound, this time a low drive from the edge of the box after Buaben’s strike had been parried out into his path by Raith goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert.
Keatings almost claimed his hat-trick three minutes after the break but his low shot from the edge of the box was blocked by Cuthbert after a thrusting run down the left by Jason Holt, who impressed with a tidy performance in his attacking midfield berth. Keatings wasn’t to be denied his third, however, and what a peach it was, as the forward curled a delightful left-footed free-kick high past Cuthbert from 20 yards out just before the hour mark.
With any hope of a Raith fightback having been ended and the ground now bathed in sunshine, Hearts started to turn on the style, and their 3800 fans, who had hitherto been surprisingly quiet considering many had enjoyed pre-match festivities at the Bavarian Beer Festival in Kirkcaldy, began to revel in their side’s dominance. Safe in the knowledge that their maligned former striker could now inflict no harm on their 100 per cent record, the Hearts support burst into a rousing chorus of “One Christian Nade” when he was named as the home team’s man of the match.
Raith’s frustration at being unable to cope with Hearts was highlighted when manager Grant Murray was booed as he took off Mark Stewart, who responded by punching the dugout in anger at being substituted. In contrast, all was hunky-dory for the visitors, who were afforded the luxury of sending on 17-year-old Alistair Roy, a recent recruit from Stirling Albion, for his league debut in place of Keatings, who took the adulation of the away fans.
The maroon hordes were sent bounding out of Stark’s Park in euphoric mood when substitute Gary Oliver rasped home his first league goal for Hearts from 16 yards out in the last action of the match. It meant they had scored from four of their five shots on target. So far, so good in terms of adhering to Neilson’s persistent demands for his team to “be relentless”.
As Keatings walked out of Stark’s Park clutching the match ball signed by his team-mates and posing for pictures with fans, he looked like the cat who’d got the cream. The Hearts players are getting a taste for this victory lark and, with no daunting fixtures on the horizon, look in no mood to take their foot off the gas. On all the evidence so far, Neilson’s hope that his side can still have a perfect record after ten games doesn’t appear at all far fetched.