After a game which saw Hearts streak nine points clear and cement their league superiority, it took a Rangers player to say what everyone else was thinking.
“It’s theirs to throw away now,” admitted Jon Daly. Titles are not settled in November but Hearts have built a daunting advantage for anyone hoping to beat them to automatic promotion.
Neither Robbie Neilson nor his players will become overconfident despite beating their nearest challengers 2-0 on Saturday. A red card for Steven Smith contributed to the result, although there might have been two or even three visiting players dismissed on a combustible afternoon at Tynecastle.
At the height of it, the Rangers manager Ally McCoist heard a section of his own fans chant “Ally, Ally get to F***” after substituting Lewis Macleod for Kris Boyd. It was that kind of day. Passions ran high, emotions spilled over, but Hearts kept their cool and got their reward for doing so.
Jason Holt scored a beauty 11 minutes into the second half and Jamie Walker’s penalty sealed victory two minutes from the end. Neilson knows the gap between his team and Rangers is now considerable, but he will permit only quiet contentment – not wild celebrations.
“There’s no thought that the title is ours at all in the dressing room or anywhere at the club,” he said. “We will hit a dip at some point this season and it’s important we’re ready to fight out of it. The players have been fantastic. They do double and triple sessions and they work extremely hard. They deserve what they’re getting, they deserve the result and the adulation.
“You know what football’s like. If we don’t win next time then things change. The guys were in on Sunday morning at half-nine to go again. They get Monday off as a special treat for winning on Saturday,” smiled Neilson.
“The game hinged on the sending off. It was a big decision. Before that, we found it difficult to get into the game. Rangers had the upper hand. We found it hard to match their physicality. Once the game started to open up we got areas to go and play, so we just had to wait for an opportunity.
“It’s not our title to lose. It’s only nine points but we need to keep working and prepare for the Celtic game next week and then Queen of the South. It would have been a different outcome if Rangers had kept 11 men on the pitch and we understand that. We aren’t going to get carried away.”
If there was one moment in this match worth getting hysterical about, it was the first goal. Lee McCulloch and Darren McGregor failed to clear Callum Paterson’s swirling cross and the ball dropped to Holt 20 yards from goal. He struck an exquisite first-time shot with the outside of his right foot, which arced away from the right hand of Rangers goalkeeper Steve Simonsen and into the net.
“Jason has great technique and we knew if we could get him into those areas he could do something,” said Neilson. “We couldn’t get him in there in the first half, we couldn’t get up the park and link the play. We made a few changes to get him further forward.”
Indeed, that first half belonged to Rangers despite Smith’s dismissal on 21 minutes for a late, sliding tackle on Paterson. The visitors’ aggression and energy did not diminish because of their numerical disadvantage and they were on top at half-time, albeit without creating any clear chances. Hearts defender Brad McKay had a header touched on to the crossbar by Simonsen but that apart the hosts were subdued. They were without captain Danny Wilson and striker Osman Sow, while influential midfielder Prince Buaben remained an unused substitute due to a niggling problem.
The second period saw Hearts asserting themselves more. Holt’s goal helped them settle, although Rangers substitute Richard Foster struck the crossbar from a rebound after goalkeeper Neil Alexander’s fine parry from Nicky Law. Walker’s late penalty – awarded after he was bundled down by former Tynecastle midfielder Ian Black inside the box – was the seal on a momentous victory.
Referee Craig Thomson, having ordered Smith off, had to judge two other reckless tackles by Rangers players during that second half. First, Kenny Miller slid in on Kevin McHattie with his studs showing. The striker played the ball but was nonetheless out of control with a challenge which saw McHattie stretchered off with an injured knee. Miller was cautioned.
After Walker’s penalty, Boyd put in a similar tackle on Brad McKay in the same area of the pitch. He was also booked. There could have been few complaints had both Miller and Boyd seen red.
“It’s always going to be a physical game,” said Neilson. “For both sides, there were strong challenges. Both teams are up the top of the league competing at Tynecaslte. There was a full house and an atmosphere and we had to stand up to it. They put some challenges in and we put some in. The referee makes his own decisions and I thought he had a decent game.”
The final result increases pressure on McCoist. His team lacked creativity and, to their detriment, seemed overly concerned with physical challenges and trying to bully their way to a result. It didn’t work. Creative flair players like David Templeton remained on the substitutes’ bench.
McCoist remains defiant, however. “It’s going to be difficult [to close the gap] but it’s not insurmountable, that’s for sure. Hearts are playing well but I think we showed enough in the first half to prove we can close that gap. Nine points isn’t ideal but we believe we can do it. We still believe we’re going to be champions come May.
“I don’t think about being under pressure. My only concern is the team and the club getting back to where we want to be. Saturday is a reminder it will be difficult. I’m aware of it and it ain’t nice but I’ve been in the game long enough to know it’s part and parcel.”
McCoist admitted being unhappy at Smith’s tackle on Paterson and others which forced him to substitute players on a yellow card, such as Miller. “We were the better team in the first half by some considerable way but I’m very disappointed in the sending off. It puts us down to ten men against a team going well. I feel Steven’s let his team-mates down with the challenge.
“You have to keep your focus to win games of football. There were one or two needless challenges that put us under pressure. You’re down to ten men and you don’t want to lose any more men so you need to make decisions. That was part of my concern [with Miller]. He’s gone in and won the ball but we all know you’re not allowed to challenge sliding in. That was one of the reasons we made the change.”
The most succinct summary of the result was delivered by Daly: “It’s going to be tough and it’s out of our hands now,” he conceded. “We play Hearts twice between now and the end of the season. Even if we win all our games, we still need them to drop points. It’s theirs to throw away now.”