The mood of uncertainty around Tynecastle was lifted slightly by the Hearts players’ receipt of their November salaries last Thursday, and the pall of doubt that enshrouds the club and its supporters was momentarily forgotten as Dunfermline Athletic were comfortably dispatched in Gorgie.
A degree of swagger, the type of which has, of late, proven rare at the Edinburgh club after the dark days of non-payment of first team players descended, was evident from a confident on-field display by the home side and, in the terraces, among their buoyant support.
Key to the Jambos’ overall steadiness and frequent success in carving open a porous Pars defence was the home team’s strong spine, which supported an unforgiving backline and a creative and busy attack that provided only Hearts’ second win in eight games.
Leading the line, Irishman Stephen Elliott was bubbly and bustling in attack for Hearts and displayed a burgeoning repertoire of accurate flicks from long balls forward and a talent for taking up dangerous positions. The unappeasable Ian Black was the metronome, dictating the pace and direction of play from the centre of the pitch, his constant activity followed by precision passing and crossing.
The buzzbomb midfielder possessed the confidence to retain the ball and search for the ideal pass. Behind Black, Andy Webster, unspectacular and solid, was partnered in central defence by the more colourful Marius Zaliukas, the Hearts captain who proved a monument of power and inspiration.
Marian Kello, the goalkeeper, impressed with his footwork at backpasses and his ability to pluck crosses from the air at ease, but he was rarely forced to make a save except on the occasion of Liam Buchanan’s close-range effort shortly after half-time, which the Slovakian No. 1 did well to push away to his right.
Hearts’ success in creating regular chances from corners at the other end was due to the leaden-footed Pars defence as much as the aerial prowess of the likes of Zaliukas. When the big Lithuanian was not towering above his marker to power a header at goal, the visitors’ backline habitually allowed the ball a clear passage towards another maroon shirt. Black’s corner in the second minute found Ryan McGowan at the far post and the Australian, employed at left-back for the day, had time to trap the ball at the far side of the six yard box and find Stephen Elliott with a single deft touch. Elliott was similarly free of attention and, from point-blank range, could not miss. Paul Willis, the Dunfermline wide midfielder, once harboured dreams as a youngster of progressing from his place in the Hearts youth team to a starring role in the first team at Tynecastle. Having subsequently ended up at East End Park, Willis did not quite reach that ambition here but proved the Pars’ best performer early on. He crossed for Andy Barrowman to send a looping header towards goal but Kello scrambled across to claw the goalbound ball away from the top left-hand corner of his goal.
Early on, the mercurial Moroccan Mehdi Taouil continued to frustrate and mesmerise in equal measure – as has unfortunately proven his trademark since his summer move from Kilmarnock. In one highlight, he skipped away from two markers to leave a pair of Pars clattering into each other in comic-book fashion. More often in early stages, though, he surrendered possession too easily and struggled to bypass his marker. The diminutive box of tricks had the Hearts fans off their seats again when he twisted round Paul Burns on the right-hand side of the box and “dug out” a left-footed shot that sailed narrowly over the top left-hand corner of goal. He firmly atoned for a miserable opening personal sequence of play by striking Hearts’ second goal, side-steppimg his marker inside the box before rolling the ball to the left of Dunfermline goalkeeper Paul Gallacher.
After half time, David Templeton exorcised a year of frustration in front of goal by striking the Jambos’ third. The young winger’s last strike arrived against St Mirren in a 2-0 away win on December 29 last year, and the pain he has experienced in front of goal since then grew almost unbearable after successive disappointments in the Pars’ penalty area. Receiving a low Mehdi Taouil cross from the right with his back to goal on the edge of the six-yard box, Templeton flicked the ball into the air before swivelling and volleying a shot on the turn from an acute angle that flashed across the face of Gallacher’s goal. The jinking No. 12 then appeared to be hauled down by Dunfermline’s Paul Burns as he attempted to seize the rebound from another effort at goal.
From the 70th minute onward, however, the good times rolled for Templeton, Hearts and the majority of the 11,988 fans inside Tynecastle.
To his visible relief, the former Stenhousemuir youngster banished his miserable goalless run of 353 days with an instinctive, arrowing strike to make it 3-0. His looping 20-yard strike nestled in the bottom left-hand corner of the net in front of the Gorgie Stand. Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” rang out from the tannoy as fans’ favourite Rudi Skacel emerged from the bench in place of Taouil, and goalkeeper Kello answered the home crowd’s pleas to swing on his crossbar. Only the appearance of Santa and a sleigh bearing gifts and the players’ December wage packets could have lifted the mood further.
In the absence of Father Christmas, Skacel did his best to further enhance spirits among the home support by heading in a late fourth after Gallacher had saved substitute Ryan Stevenson’s fierce drive from outside the box. It was Skacel’s fifth goal of the season on what could be one of his final appearances at Tynecastle. The Czech midfielder’s contract expires in January and Hearts have publicly announced their plan to remove such high earners from their cumbersome wage bill.
All that was forgotten, at least for 90 minutes, as Hearts marched to within a point of fourth-placed St Johnstone. It was a reminder of the sparkling displays these players are capable of producing and couldn’t have been more timely in providing the fans with some light relief during these times of off-field uncertainty.