As he left Tynecastle’s media room just after 5pm on Saturday, Ian Murray, the humbled Dumbarton manager, stopped to study the full-time scores on the television, noted that Sunderland had been thumped 8-0 by Southampton, and quipped: “Jeez, I thought I had a bad day.”
While Black Cats boss Gus Poyet will be hard-pushed to recover from such a humiliating trouncing, Murray – despite all the merciless goading the ex-Hibs captain was subjected to by a baying home support – could at least take solace from the fact his side’s 5-1 loss at the hands of rampant Hearts wasn’t nearly as shock-inducing as that of the Mackems. In fact, comprehensive Jambo romps are now becoming the norm in Gorgie.
Murray, admirably magnanimous given he’d just been on the wrong end of the worst possible scoreline for any Hibs fan in this part of town, mused: “We’re not the first team to come here and lose five goals and we probably won’t be the last.”
Table-topping Hearts have scored five in each of their last three home games, and, venturing back to the tail end of last season, they have hit five in four of their last seven league games at Tynecastle. They are comfortably the top-scoring senior side in Britain this season, having scored 31 league goals, three more than the next best, English League One side Bristol City. To think that this is the same club which, for much of the previous seven years, had been undermined by a lack of cutting edge and a dearth of reliable goal-scorers. In addition, Hearts have won nine of their ten league games so far and boast the joint-best defensive record in the country, with just five in the ‘goals against’ column.
While there remains a feeling – one endorsed by head coach Robbie Neilson himself – that Hearts are yet to truly hit top gear for a sustained period, talk in recent weeks of them “winning ugly” has been a tad overplayed. In Saturday’s papers, Hibs midfielder Scott Robertson and Rangers striker Kenny Miller had questioned Hearts’ ability to maintain their blistering start to the season, but there is certainly no evidence yet of the wheels being about to come off the relentless maroon juggernaut.
“You can’t argue with the league table,” said Murray. “They’re nine points clear and they’ve scored another five goals at home – it’s as simple as that. Anybody who tries to argue they’re not the best team in this league at this moment is wrong.”
This remarkable post-administration Hearts revival is being underpinned by the thoroughness of Neilson. While Murray was speaking to the press, Hearts’ head coach was already on his way to watch Hibs, his side’s next opponents, in their teatime match at Livingston. Neilson could easily have watched a recording of the game when he got back to his Dunblane home, but, typifying the attention to detail for which he is fast becoming renowned, he wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to see next Sunday’s Edinburgh derby rivals in the flesh. Not when he has a nine-point advantage at the top of the Championship and an intoxicating feelgood factor to protect.
Hearts could never have imagined life outside Scotland’s top flight being this uplifting. “If the players can’t enjoy it at the moment, then they’ve got a problem,” said assistant manager Stevie Crawford, who was left to take care of media duties as Neilson dashed away.
As he motored westbound along the Gorgie Road, Neilson would have passed hordes of merry-making Jambos bounding out of the stadium after a comprehensive win secured by goals from sman Sow, Prince Buaben, Jason Holt, Callum Paterson and Billy King.
Backed by another bumper crowd of 15,522 – an attendance usually exclusive to Category A games – Hearts threatened to overwhelm their part-time visitors with a dominant start. All that was missing was an end product as some early spurned opportunities allowed Dumbarton, buoyed by goalless draws at home to Hearts and away to Hibs in the previous five weeks, to grow into the game. Just when the Sons looked to be getting comfortable, however, Hearts made the breakthrough in the 26th minute.
Paterson, back in the starting line-up after being rested for the previous two games on plastic pitches, had already served notice of his intentions with a wicked delivery in the first minute which forced a corner. But when he swung over another brilliant cross from the right, this time Sow burst in at the near post to glance a header beyond the helpless Danny Rogers.
Murray admitted his side had been “poor” in the first half, but they almost forced an equaliser with their first foray forward, only for Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander to make a stunning reflex save to deny Andy Graham from close range. “That’s why Neil’s played where he has – he’s had nothing to do up to that point and then all of a sudden he pops up with that save,” said Murray.
The goalkeeping wasn’t quite so clever as Hearts doubled their lead five minutes before the break. King won a penalty after being hacked down by Scott Linton as he burst on to a Paterson through ball. Soufian El Hassnaoui wanted to take it and ended up kicking the ball away after being overruled by his team-mates, who insisted Buaben would do the honours.
It was almost a bad call as the Ghanaian hit a tame penalty straight at Rogers, but the on-loan Aberdeen keeper, who had saved a similarly meek spot-kick from Hibs’ Dominique Malonga a week previously, allowed the ball to squirm up and over his body into the net. Buaben couldn’t care less about how fortuitous he’d been as he bounded off in celebration, euphorically booting the corner flag into the Wheatfield Stand, for which he was possibly fortunate to avoid a yellow card.
Hearts can do no wrong at present, however. Even when Sow, who had been crucial to Hearts getting on the front foot in the first half, was forced off at the interval with a tight hamstring, it was his replacement, Holt, who increased their lead nine minutes after the break. Taking possession midway inside the Sons half, the midfielder ran forward unchallenged and drilled in a low angled shot from the edge of the box.
Dumbarton were livelier in the second half and, with the Hearts defence looking a touch edgy without injured captain Danny Wilson – the ever-elegant Morgaro Gomis wore the armband in his absence – they pulled one back in the 73rd minute. Jordan Kirkpatrick’s corner was headed back into the danger area by Colin Nish, another ex-Hibee who had been goaded by the Hearts support, and Garry Fleming volleyed in from eight yards. But, as they have done so often this season, Hearts used the closing stages to add gloss to the scoreline. Paterson rose to head the fourth from a King corner in 84 minutes, although Murray felt there was a “blatant foul” on Rogers as he tried to stop it crossing the line.
“We want five,” chanted the crowd. And they got their wish with two minutes left when the burgeoning King, who produced another menacing display in attack, completed the scoring with a typically clinical finish from the edge of the box. Murray’s misery was complete as the home support gleefully reminded him of the score.
Soon “bring on the Hibees” was booming round the stadium. For the buoyant Jambos, this was the perfect appetiser for next week’s eagerly-awaited trip to Easter Road.