Games like this win league titles. Nil-nil with four minutes left and a deflected free-kick lands in the net for a scarcely-deserved 1-0 win.
Scrappy, nervy, frantic and uninspiring – Saturday’s match at Alloa was all of the above. Hearts simply couldn’t care less.
Robbie Neilson’s team showed a different side to their character after earning plenty of plaudits for free-flowing football and a rake of goals. They showed grit, desire and perseverance to prise three points from one of the most awkward Championship venues.
Both Rangers and Hibs dropped points at Recreation Park, which has been renamed the Indodrill Stadium for sponsorship. Hearts didn’t and moved nine points clear at the top of the table.
In doing so, they set a new points record of 25 from nine matches since the Championship became a ten-team league in 1994. Alloa deserved at least a draw and, given the chances they squandered, could easily have won. Hearts toiled for rhythm on the firm astroturf pitch, but full-back Adam Eckersley produced the most vital contribution with four minutes remaining.
His left-footed free-kick swung into the penalty area and made its way through a collection of players. It took a tiny deflection as it bounced off the turf before nestling in the far corner of the net. Hearts were down to ten men at that point having used all three substitutes when captain Danny Wilson went off with a tweaked hamstring. Still they pushed for a winner.
Should they go on to win the league and secure automatic promotion to the Premiership ahead of Rangers, Hibs and the rest, Saturday’s outcome will be as important as any. “We’re here to try and win the title,” said head coach Neilson. “If we have to come to games like this and do it in the 86th minute, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the season, will people look back and say, ‘how did you play at Alloa?’ Nobody will care. We got three points.
“It’s a difficult place for anyone to come and we knew that. There isn’t a huge crowd so there isn’t a huge atmosphere and it’s very difficult to play in it. You need to get used to the pitch and the bounce of the ball. It’s the same for both teams and I thought Alloa were fantastic. They harried and pressed us and they made it difficult. I thought they had the better chances.
“We went down to ten men when we lost our captain, but we still had that belief and that drive to go and win it. These are difficult venues and to come here, drop down to ten men and still get a 1-0 win is fantastic. I’m delighted for the boys. There is a real spirit in the dressing room.”
Alloa’s ground was close to full capacity with a crowd of 3067. However, 2200 of those were Hearts fans eager to see their team’s unbeaten run preserved. Like Neilson, they would not have been overly unhappy with a point given how others have fared in Clackmannanshire. The celebrations when Eckersley’s free-kick struck the net indicated a mixture of surprise, delight and a touch of relief. Alloa had wasted several scoring chances. Jamie Walker hit the post for Hearts in the first half but Kevin Cawley was denied by Neil Alexander one-against-one. After the interval, Ryan McCord and substitute Eddie Ferns were both narrowly off target, while Osman Sow’s finish from Billy King’s cutback had landed in the crowd at the railway end of the ground. When Wilson’s early exit reduced Hearts to ten men, a draw seemed inevitable.
“It was a precaution to take Danny off,” continued Neilson. “We were going to put him up front to give us a bit of presence up there, but I decided just to take him off. To be honest, at that point, we’d probably have taken a 0-0 and got away, but the spirit in the team pushed us on and we got a 1-0 win.
“I hope we can maintain the momentum. We know there are going to be more games like Saturday. We got a wee bit of luck with the goal. We got a good delivery to get the ball in and we got a nick on it and it went in. Alloa missed a few chances but as long as we keep trying to win games ...
“We’ve been winning two, three, four and five-nil. That breeds confidence but a game like Saturday breeds confidence too. There will be other games when it’s 0-0 for 85 minutes and we have that belief now that we can go and do it again.”
The result intensifies pressure on second-placed Rangers, who postponed their weekend match due to international matches. They have a game in hand, but facing a nine-point deficit in mid-October will be daunting for the Glasgow club. Neilson remains publicly diplomatic, but inwardly he knows his team are the ones to catch.
“I’m not really interested if it puts pressure on anybody. It’s up to them,” he said. “Pressure is what you feel yourself. We can only win games. We’ll try and do it again next week against Dumbarton and then at Easter Road the week after.”
Barry Smith, the Alloa manager, was rightly proud of his players on Saturday evening. His part-time team looked every inch the equal of Hearts and matched their visitors stride for stride throughout the 90 minutes. The final result was cruel on them given the effort they expended.
“They put so much energy and enthusiasm into that game and deserved so much more because I don’t think Hearts created much and we’ve created the better chances by far,” said Smith. “I set the team out to frustrate them and to come away with nothing, it’s hugely disappointing.
“I think our players should take a lot of credit. Our team is part-time, train two nights a week. Robbie has them in doing extra, but could you tell the difference? Our energy levels were excellent and we’ll build on that performance.”