Victory over Falkirk was worthy of champions

James Keatings, main picture, came off the bench to wrap things up after Genero Zeefuik, below,  made it 2-0 for Hearts just after the interval. Jamie Walker is congratulated after scoring the first goal. Pictures: Greg Macvean
James Keatings, main picture, came off the bench to wrap things up after Genero Zeefuik, below, made it 2-0 for Hearts just after the interval. Jamie Walker is congratulated after scoring the first goal. Pictures: Greg Macvean
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Confetti burst into the air as James Keatings arced the third Hearts goal into Jamie MacDonald’s net.

This was the day the Edinburgh club effectively clinched the league title and, fittingly, they produced a performance worthy of champions.

The 3493 away fans were in celebratory mood and left the Falkirk Stadium ready to party after goals from Jamie Walker, Genero Zeefuik and Keatings. A couple launched confetti into the sky just to get in the mood, knowing their league triumph could be confirmed the following day. That’s precisely what happened.

Chants of “Championees” were raised each time Falkirk’s net bulged. A 3-0 win away at a team which had lost only once in their last 17 matches spoke for itself. Hearts were clinical with their finishing, determined in midfield and reliable in defence – a fair summation of their entire season, in fact.

No-one could predict whether Hibs’ result against Rangers would go in Hearts’ favour but there was a clear drive within the visiting players to do their part and let others take care of themselves. Falkirk are responsible for Hearts’ only league defeat of the season but on Saturday they were relegated to second best.

The motivation within Robbie Neilson and his players as they prepared to cross the finish line was notable. They are now 23 points clear at the top of the league and cannot be caught. However, Neilson admitted he would have accepted a league decider at home to Rangers on the last day of the season if offered such a scenario last summer.

“To be honest, I looked at the fixtures at the start of the campaign and saw we had Rangers in the first and last games of the season. I would have taken the idea of going into the last game against them needing a result. I would have taken a league decider at Tynecastle. But thankfully we don’t need to do that,” he said.

“We controlled most of the game, although it took a little bit of time for our players to get used to the astroturf surface. Once we got a grip of things, we dominated. Falkirk train on this surface daily, so they have that advantage, but I really like the surface, it suits a footballing side.

“As a coach, you just want guys who are prepared to work hard to make the best of their ability, and we definitely have that. All the coaches and I can do is prepare training, and hope the boys buy into it, which they all have done. Even when we’ve won the league, it’s important that we continue to win games. We have to play Hibs and Rangers, and it’s vital for us to beat these sides. Our mindset is that we must win every game, a club of this stature must not accept less.”

Falkirk had a goal disallowed for offside before the impressive Osman Sow created the opener for Walker. The giant Swede powered past Kieran Duffie and cut the ball back for the winger to convert via MacDonald’s leg on 28 minutes. The second from Zeefuik came moments after the interval, the Dutchman volleying home after Falkirk could only partially clear Walker’s cross.

The hosts might have reduced the deficit moments later, but Will Vaulks’ header from Duffie’s cross bounced inches wide of Neil Alexander’s right post. Then, from Craig Sibbald’s 68th-minute corner, David McCracken won a header which Adam Eckersley cleared off the line. It was one of many excellent interventions from the English left-back, who was another standout along with Pallardo, Walker and King.

Had McCracken’s header landed in the net, the game’s complexion would have changed. As it was, Hearts went on to cement their victory. Keatings produced the third goal just 60 seconds after arriving on the field as a substitute. He scampered on to Miguel Pallardo’s looping through ball and angled the ball over MacDonald into the top corner with the aid of a deflection. It was Hearts’ 84th goal in the 29th game of an outstanding league season.

“The boys just want to score goals. That was the reason I brought James on,” explained Neilson. “He is desperate to do well and he’s going for top scorer in the league, which I think he’s two short of right now, so it’s great to have that on the bench.”

Falkirk manager Peter Houston accepted that the visitors deserved their points. “Credit to Hearts, they were the better side,” he said. “I could be critical of the goals we lost. The first one was a cutback where out full-back should have dealt with it and got the ball out of the park, even for a corner kick against us. Hearts’ player has come off one of our midfielders and got to the ball to score.

“The second goal was quite similar and doesn’t help you when it’s so soon after half-time. You are wanting to build a platform and gain confidence. Then the third goal actually came from our corner kick and Hearts counter-attacked.

“We were beaten by the better team. I have no excuses in that regard. The good thing for me and Falkirk is that we have a game on Tuesday so we can try to get our momentum going again. If the momentum is similar to what we’ve just experienced over the last couple of months, then I’ll take it.”