KEVIN McHATTIE ended four months of injury torture by scoring on his comeback as late goals from Jamie Walker and Billy King secured a hard-earned victory for Hearts in Kirkcaldy.
McHattie also escaped another serious knee injury in a tackle with former Hearts forward Christian Nade, who was ordered off on 64 minutes.
Ten-man Raith tried to hold on for a point having equalised late in the first half through Craig Barr’s header. However, substitute Walker scored from distance and then supplied the pass for King to secure victory five minutes from the end.
McHattie was making his first senior appearance since last November and opened the scoring with a somewhat controversial goal which Raith Rovers claimed was offside. After Barr’s headed equaliser near the break, Raith were reduced to ten men with Nade’s dismissal. They survived momentarily, but Walker’s introduction swung the match in Hearts’ favour and maintained their charge towards the Scottish Championship title.
Amid the thin layer of fog enveloping Stark’s Park, the Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson made three changes to the team which beat Dumbarton 4-0 on Saturday.
McHattie replaced Adam Eckersley for his first outing since injuring knee ligaments in November. King and James Keatings were also reinstated in place of Walker and Osman Sow respectively.
Keatings almost had the visitors ahead inside four minutes. Exchanging passes with Sam Nicholson, the diminutive forward took the return ball and steadied himself ten yards from goal for a left-footed shot. However, the Raith goalkeeper David McGurn produced the first of countless excellent saves on the night. Moments later, McGurn held King’s low drive from 20 yards.
Chants of “stand up for the champions” were given an early airing by the sizeable travelling support as Hearts dominated the early stages.
The pace and tempo of Neilson’s team was causing Raith problems. When the hosts did get possession of the ball, they were often hounded off it very quickly. Quick balls forward to Nade were fruitless as the Frenchman found himself surrounded by maroon shirts.
McGurn required quick reactions on 22 minutes to push Keatings’ first-time strike from Genero Zeefuik’s pass for a corner. Keatings then returned the favour with a cross from the touchline to his striking partner at the back post, only for Rory McKeown to block the Dutchman’s volley.
Eventually, Hearts’ pressure paid off, and again it was the Zeefuik-Keatings partnership which fashioned the opening. However, there was plenty controversy and a surreal feeling around the ground as the ball crossed the line.
Zeefuik’s pass found Keatings on the far corner of the Raith penalty area. His shot was deflected and bounced towards the six-yard box where McHattie, having joined in the attack, was arriving. As Raith players claimed offside, the defender calmly cushioned the ball away from McGurn into the corner of the net with the outside of his left foot.
He then seemed to freeze awaiting a decision from referee George Salmond. The far side assistant referee, Mark Ainslie, kept his flag by his side and Salmond awarded Hearts the goal. Only then did some muted celebrations begin amongst the visiting players.
Perhaps feelings of unjust fired Raith up at that stage because they instantly began probing at Hearts. Five minutes from the interval, Grant Anderson supplied a teasing cross from the right which only narrowly eluded Ryan Conroy at the back post. Then came the equaliser. Conroy’s corner was met by Barr’s looping header high into the net for the first goal the Kirkcaldy club had scored against Hearts this season.
Nicholson’s dipping effort landed narrowly wide at the start of the second period, and McGurn held Zeefuik’s attempt from distance. The goalkeeper sprung to his right to palm away Alim Ozturk’s bending free-kick as the visitors settled back into their rhythm. Had it not been for McGurn, there was no question Raith would have been behind by at least a couple of goals.
Ozturk took another free-kick but this time played it short to Zeefuik, who spun and dispatched a shot over the crossbar. The Edinburgh club were having difficulty converting chances at that point despite scoring 14 times in their previous two outings.
As the hour mark passed Raith began edging into the game. They attacked down the flanks, particularly the right, and their guests were unsettled whenever white shirts poured forward. Just as they would have hoped to perhaps edge ahead against the league leaders, they were reduced to ten men.
McHattie and Nade slid in for a loose ball in the middle of the park, the Hearts player arrived first and was caught late around the knee by Nade. The referee produced an instant red card for serious foul play, leaving the striker to trudge disconsolately towards the dressing-room.
Still McGurn was in defiant mood as Hearts pursued a winning goal. He was sprightly down to his right to deny Nicholson but could do nothing to prevent Walker’s venomous shot restoring his team’s advantage. The winger stepped forward and dispatched his attempt from around 25 yards and the ball screamed into the net.
Hearts fans were still celebrating when King clinched the points. He collected Walker’s through pass in the inside right channel and slotted the ball beyond the unfortunate McGurn. The goalkeeper had been Raith’s finest performer, but he could not stop what seems a relentless Hearts charge back to the Scottish Premiership.
Depending on results over the weekend, they could be champions by Sunday afternoon.
Raith Rovers (4-4-2): McGurn; Thomson, Barr, Watson, McKeown; Anderson, Fox, Callachan, Conroy; Vaughan, Nade. Subs: 70: Stewart for Vaughan. Unused subs: Cuthbert, Hill, Moon, Scott, Robertson, Matthews.
Hearts (4-4-2): Alexander; Paterson, Ozturk, Wilson, McHattie; King, Pallardo, Gomis, Nicholson; Zeefuik, Keatings. Subs: 73: Walker for Keatings; 88: El Hassnaoui for Zeefuik; 88: Anderson for King. Unused subs: Gallacher, Sow, McGhee, Eckersley.
Referee: George Salmond.