Any grievance Billy King secretly harboured at being omitted from the Hearts team on Saturday was ruthlessly taken out on Dumbarton.
The winger, dropped from the side that crushed Cowdenbeath 10-0, stepped off the bench with half an hour remaining and finished with two goals and an assist.
His cameo performance was one of two major highlights as Hearts edged closer to the Scottish Championship title with a comfortable 4-0 win. The other was an imperious midfield display by the Spaniard Miguel Pallardo. He won virtually every challenge he entered and passed the ball faultlessly all day. King added sparkle to an otherwise routine Hearts performance.
Dave Mackay was most likely looking down on the day his life and career were celebrated at Tynecastle. A minute’s silence was observed before kick-off, but for much of the game Hearts toiled for clinical finishing despite that 10-0 victory in their previous match. That they won 4-0 without really needing to move above second gear is probably indicative of their overpowering strength in Scotland’s second tier.
They won’t be there too much longer. If Hearts beat Raith Rovers tomorrow and Falkirk on Saturday, and provided Rangers defeat Alloa on Tuesday, then a draw between Hibs and Rangers on Sunday would make the Tynecastle club champions. Failing that, the title can be secured at home against Queen of the South on the last Saturday of this month.
King is destined to play a key role whatever happens. He was left out against Dumbarton on the understanding he would take part in upcoming fixtures. He accepted head coach Robbie Neilson’s decision like a professional – then promptly took his frustration out on those from the Rock.
“I wasn’t too disappointed because there are three important games this week,” said King. “He [Neilson] just said it was a bit of squad rotation and I came on, so I played a good part in the game and scored two goals. That’s what I’m about. I come on thinking I want to get goals or assists and I did that.
“I understood because he explained to me there were three games in a week. The hardest game this week will be Falkirk away. I understood why he was rotating the squad. I’m happy I came on and played 30 minutes. It was an emotional day for the club and it was just nice to get the win.”
Hearts hit both the post and the crossbar in the first half but this game was goalless at the interval. Osman Sow’s prodded finish from close range had Hearts 1-0 ahead by the time King entered the fray. He supplied the corner for Danny Wilson to head the second, and then took matters into his own hands in the final four minutes. First was a solo run past two opponents and a low left-footed finish. Then came a vicious drive into the net, also with the left, as he entered the penalty area.
“The manager’s been saying we need to keep going right to the final whistle. They were tiring a bit as well, which I think helped us and we had fresh legs,” continued King. “Me, Soufian [El Hassnaoui] and Keatsy [James Keatings] came on. We are three players hungry for goals and that’s why we got a couple late on.
“As an attacking player, it’s good to see we’re scoring lots of goals. We’ve won 10-0 and now 4-0 but it’s also important that we’re keeping clean sheets as well. You see teams that score ten goals but concede one or two. We’re not losing goals and that’s a good thing. I never saw this happening this season, to be honest. I didn’t think we would be as dominant as this. It’s just a joy to be a part of.”
Hearts’ lead at the top is 17 points from second-placed Hibs. Dumbarton defended resolutely for a large part of Saturday’s game but their part-time players eventually succumbed to the persistent probing. Hearts’ 25 attempts at goal to Dumbarton’s three illustrates the kind of control the hosts enjoyed without annihilating their guests.
“Patience is a key thing for us at the moment, especially at Tynecastle,” said Neilson. “Teams sit in and make it difficult for us. It took us 25 minutes even to break Cowdenbeath down but we dominated Saturday’s match. The quality in the 18-yard box wasn’t quite there. The whole atmosphere and build-up to the game was inspirational. Everyone knows about Dave Mackay and there are quotes from him up in the dressing-room so it was important we got a result for him.”
On King’s omission, Neilson stated: “Billy will be disappointed he didn’t start. There aren’t many players who play in a 10-0 victory then get dropped the following week. I spoke to him before it and explained the reasons for it. Billy is a good character and I’m really pleased he came on and scored two goals. I’m lucky enough to have players who can come in like that. The hardest part is picking 11 because you need to leave people out.
“It’s another win, now we go to Tuesday at Raith Rovers and then Falkirk on Saturday. Six points from them would be fantastic and would be another huge step towards the title. We aren’t going to get carried away so we’ll prepare properly for Tuesday.”
Ian Murray, the Dumbarton manager, explained that his players felt goalkeeper Danny Rogers was fouled at the first goal. Rogers came for Sam Nicholson’s corner and could only palm it down into a congested six-yard box where Sow poked it home. The keeper and his colleagues claimed he was impeded.
“It looked like a free-kick. It looked like he had his arms up and couldn’t get out but I’d need to see it again,” said Murray. “It’s a hard one for the referee to see because there were a lot of bodies in there. The second goal is almost as important as the first but I thought our effort was excellent. We lost 3-0 to Hibs but this performance was night and day from that.
“We did okay in the second half and were well in the game at 1-0. We worked combinations well and had Hearts worried for a bit with the crowd getting on their backs. They got their goals at good times without having to work too hard. I knew we could perform to a level. Four-nil looks bad from the outside but I thought we stuck to our task well.
“Dave Mackay was obviously a fantastic player for Hearts and in Britain. We’ve got to be harsh and selfish and shut ourselves off from that. We had to hope the occasion worked against Hearts with their fans demanding a win. It was a great occasion and we’ll respect the day with a full house but we have to look after ourselves and ultimately we’re disappointed.”