Summer sunshine over Tynecastle threatens to extend into the autumn with Hearts top of the league and looking a commanding force.
For the second successive weekend, they fired four goals past one of the Championship’s better teams. This time it was Falkirk on a day when everything clicked into place inside a packed and sun-kissed stadium.
The feelgood factor gradually built up in Gorgie since the end of administration shows no sign of dissipating. New signings continue to arrive – Lewis Toshney could be next – while results on the pitch are being noted across the country. Rangers, Hibs, Raith Rovers and now Falkirk have fallen against a Hearts team clearly determined to attack all comers this year.
James Keatings’ hat-trick inspired last week’s 4-0 win at Raith, but Saturday saw Billy King rise to the fore. He was the catalyst for a win that maintained Hearts’ 100 per cent start to life in the SPFL Championship. The winger, called up to the Scotland Under-21 squad last night, scored two goals and created another to put Hearts 3-0 up and out of sight by half-time. At that point, Tynecastle was as happy as it had been in the early weeks of a season since 2005/06.
Indeed, the margin of this win would have been greater but for Falkirk goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald. He denied Keatings three times, including saving the striker’s first-half penalty, on his first return to Gorgie since being released in May.
The one negative for Hearts was a straight red card for midfielder Prince Buaben in the second half. His sliding tackle on Falkirk’s Olumide Durojaiye was deemed reckless by referee Kevin Clancy. That apart, Robbie Neilson’s team were pretty faultless. Their momentum is increasing by the week and they look the strongest of the teams expected to challenge for the Championship title.
“They are probably the best team we’ve played so far,” admitted the Falkirk manager Peter Houston. His team beat Hibs 1-0 at Easter Road last weekend and outplayed Rangers for long spells the week before.
“In the first half we scored three goals and could have scored more,” said Neilson. “Then Falkirk changed their shape and tried to get after us. We got a bit sloppy and slack and the game kind of died.
“Being 3-0 up at half-time, it can be difficult getting yourself going again for the second half because players can think it’s game over.
“The game went flat after ten minutes of the second half and we lost a late goal which soured things a bit. I feel for [goalkeeper] Jack Hamilton.
“It’s a clean sheet and the you lose a goal like that at the end. We’ve spoken about losing goals and about goal difference.
“All in all, it’s a 4-1 win and we’ve won four in a row in the league now. We have a free week this weekend so we’ll get ourselves ready to go again for the month ahead. We moved the ball well on Saturday, got it wide and got runners involved and then we didn’t do it in the second half. We took three and four and five touches and Falkirk got narrow and got men behind the ball. That gives us something to work on.”
On Buaben’s dismissal, Neilson added: “At the time I thought it was a strong tackle but a good tackle. We’ll need to deal with it. It will be disappointing to lose him, which we probably will because it’s difficult to appeal these things. Sitting at 3-0, do we really need to make a tackle like that? We’ll speak to Prince about when to tackle and when to do it.”
Jordan McGhee headed the first goal from King’s corner before Alan Maybury conceded a penalty for pulling back Sam Nicholson. MacDonald saved Keatings low attempt from the spot and reacted instantly to block the striker’s follow-up shot. King sprung on to the loose ball to ram it low beyond the beleaguered goalkeeper and double Hearts’ advantage.
King made it 3-0 with a header from Keatings’ cross. MacDonald had denied Keatings one-on-one minutes earlier and got a hand to King’s header but could not prevent a third goal. In the second half, the keeper again thwarted Keatings. It was no surprise when he was named Hearts’ ambassadors’ man of the match. However, he did concede a fourth goal when Osman Sow converted a penalty after being fouled by Will Vaulks.
Falkirk’s late consolation striker by substitute Botti Bia-Bi was never going to placate Houston. He bemoaned his team’s defending and claimed the goals were partly attributable to poor decisions in key areas.
“On the first half performance, Hearts were better. We didn’t defend properly,” he said. “The first goal is a header with no challenge. The second is a penalty and we shouldn’t be making challenges like that. Maybs [Alan Maybury] has enough experience to know he has to let the player go. The game was almost finished at 3-0 at half-time.
“Then there was another penalty in the second half. When you give the goals away we did it’s criminal.
“Don’t take anything away from Hearts but we didn’t get near the standards of last week [against Hibs]. We’ve had a tough run of games – away to Hibs and Hearts and we’ve played Rangers. Now we face teams of similar ilk to us like Queen of the South, Alloa and Dumbarton. Hearts were good but we were poor.”
Falkirk were surprisingly ineffective in midfield, where the classy Blair Alston and Craig Sibbald were unable to influence proceedings. That was largely down to the high-tempo passing game enforced by Hearts. Morgaro Gomis was the midfield dictator, ably assisted by Buaben before his red card.
Given the likes of first-choice goalkeeper Neil Alexander, right-back Callum Paterson and forward Dale Carrick were all unavailable, the manner of victory was impressive. King looks a different player to the one whose confidence seemed fragile last year and Keatings was a constant dynamic presence in attack despite not scoring.
“James was fantastic even though he didn’t get a goal. Jamie MacDonald saved a few from him and I thought Jamie played well.
“He’s a good shotstopper, but James worked well with Osman Sow. I would’ve liked to get Soufian El Hassnaoui on but when Alim Ozturk had to come off it wasn’t possible. He will get a chance soon.”
Ozturk was withdrawn as a precaution after feeling a tight hamstring. Collectively, Hearts don’t appear hamstrung by anything at the moment as they motor on at the top of the Championship.