Hearts made it six straight league wins under George Burley as Paul Hartley completed a tremendous week with a double to seal a Premier League win.
The Scotland international had been commended for his displays in the World Cup qualifiers against Italy and Norway and he grabbed a brace to extend the Jambos’ lead at the top of the table to five points.
Hearts’ majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov sat among the huge visiting support after travelling to West Lothian on a supporters’ bus.
It was routine fare for followers of Hearts during these halycon days and, if the Lithuanian banker was to tell them that Santa Claus really did exist, you get the feeling they would most likely believe it, perhaps with good reason.
These were not just heady times at Heart of Midlothian – they were verging on the incredible. George Burley’s side have now won their opening six SPL matches, a feat not achieved by the Edinburgh club since rationing was in force. It was heartening to see Scots to the fore in claiming three points after the Czech midfielder Rudi Skacel’s early opening goal.
For it was Hartley and Andy Webster, two stars of their national team’s 2-1 win in Oslo, who cemented this victory. Craig Gordon rightly earned praise not only for his display in Norway, but also for nullifying the threat of Italy at Hampden the previous Saturday, and confirmed his worth again by producing an early candidate for save of the season late in the second half.
After Rangers dropped two points at Falkirk on Saturday, Hearts held a five-point lead over Gordon Strachan’s Celtic and were eight in front of the Ibrox club. With an impressive goal difference – Burley’s team have scored 19 goals and conceded only four in these opening matches – Hearts look in fine fettle before Alex McLeish takes his team to Tynecastle on Saturday week.
Skacel bundled home from two yards after a cute knockdown by Hartley during an opening period in which Hearts were utterly dominant against the league’s bottom side. Webster, again the subject of English transfer speculation, had time and space to head a second goal past the despairing Roddy McKenzie as the game approached the half-hour point and the Edinburgh club were already on Easy Street.
Hartley’s first goal of the afternoon, the culmination of the kind of fine, sweeping move which has been the hallmark of Hearts’ season so far, merely compounded Paul Lambert’s side’s agony. Paul Dalglish had been a spectator at Parkhead for Celtic’s comfortable 2-0 win over punchless Aberdeen on Saturday and he was reduced to the same role for his 57 minutes on the field yesterday.
He was on hand, though, to score from two yards just seconds before half-time, after Gordon had only managed to block Graham Barrett’s 18-yard free-kick.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the second period was a low-key affair. Graham Barrett’s shirt-tug on Jamie McAllister handed Hartley the chance to score his second, and he made no mistake as he buried the ball low to McKenzie’s left after 62 minutes. From then on, it was party time for the visiting fans who had all but filled three-quarters of Almondvale Stadium. Six games down, 30 to go – and more people were beginning to believe the impossible.
Hearts: Gordon, Neilson, Fyssas, Pressley, Webster, Hartley, McAllister, Brellier, Skacel, Bednar, Jankauskas.