THE image of Jason Talbot’s studs crunching into Sam Nicholson’s jaw underlined the challenge Hearts overcame on Saturday.
Few teams will stand up to them more than Livingston did. Under manager Mark Burchill, the West Lothian club are spirited, resilient and determined. They can also play decent football and matched their opponents from Edinburgh for most of the match despite being the Championship’s bottom club.
In the end, a touch of class and quality made the difference. Kenny Anderson’s debut goal and Jamie Walker’s well-taken clincher propelled Hearts to victory at the end of an arduous afternoon. They increased their lead on Rangers at the top of the league to 19 points – the Ibrox club now have three games in hand – and take another step closer to promotion.
However, for a fair portion of the match they had laboured. Talbot’s reckless tackle on Nicholson at the end of the first half ended the winger’s involvement. He needed stitches in his head and the Livingston captain could himself lucky to be yellow and not red carded. Talbot’s over-zealousness was a by-product of Livingston’s motivation as they fight against relegation.
Their performance stifled Hearts and left them devoid of ideas. Strikers Jordan White and Ibra Sekajja, the latter making his first Livingston start, linked up well and caused problems for Danny Wilson and the Hearts defence. Adam Eckersley was absent with a rib injury but it was in midfield where the hosts took a grip.
Not until the late introduction of substitute Billy King did the visitors step up a gear. Género Zeefuik had scored an excellent opening goal on four minutes, cancelled out by the former Tynecastle youth Craig Sives soon after half-time. King entered the fray on 76 minutes as James Keatings’ replacement. By then, with the 4000-strong visiting support audibly restless, Hearts were playing with a four-man forward line in search of a winner – King, Zeefuik, Walker and Anderson.
On 82 minutes, King crossed for Anderson to head home for a 2-1 lead. Two minutes later, King supplied Walker with the pass from which the winger executed a precise finish for the third. Brad McKay’s late red card for pulling down Livingston substitute Myles Hippolyte produced a penalty and Kyle Jacobs dispatched it confidently.
The notion at full-time was that Robbie Neilson’s side had just negotiated a major hurdle. They weren’t at their best but, not for the first time this season, showed a gutsy response to pull through.
“Even when we haven’t been playing well this season, we’ve battled away and got late goals. That’s been the case again,” said Walker. “Livi made it difficult for us there last time and they made it difficult again on Saturday. Fair play to them, they did well.
“We were just delighted to get the three points. When I scored the third it was more of a relief than anything.
“We were giving the ball away cheaply and it wasn’t good enough. We got the second goal and then my goal right after. It was a bit of relief. You just need to blank out the pressure and concentrate on the game, hoping the goal will come. Thankfully it did.
“It’s great to have the points on the board and be 19 points ahead but if Rangers win their games in hand it will be down to ten. We need to keep winning and keep putting the points on the board. If we keep winning we won’t be caught.”
King’s contribution was vital from a player who has not featured much regularly. He provided the creative spark which opened up the well-organised Livingston defence. “It shows the strength we have on the bench,” continued Walker.
“Kenny came off the bench and Billy came on and set up two goals. Me, Billy and Sam are fighting it out for two positions on the wings. We’ve all had a shot on the bench so you just need to wait for your chance.
“Billy did well on Saturday so maybe he’ll play next week.”
Given the state of Nicholson’s face, he might need to. The winger suffered cuts, bruises and needed four stitches after Talbot’s high boot slammed into the side of his face as the first half drew to a close. Referee Brian Colvin opted only to caution the left-back for an offence which looked a clear case of serious foul play and therefore warranted a straight red card.
“I didn’t really see it. I thought it was quite a bad one, to be fair,” said Walker. “It should’ve been a red card. There were a few bookings and they made it physical. The gaffer said at half-time that we needed to battle as well and I thought we did that well.”
Walker’s goal was his fouth in his last seven appearances. The 21-year-old is in a rich vein of form and seems determined to play his part in a possible title triumph. After reports of interest from the Spanish club Real Betis, he is content simply to be playing a key role for Hearts.
“[The Betis interest] was a good thing for me but I’m delighted I’m still here. Hopefully I can get a few more goals and some more good performances. I’m still young and when you’re a football player you want to win trophies. Even though it’s the Championship, it would be hard if I left and wasn’t part of it. I’m happy I’m still here.”