Momentum is everything in football and Hearts have some serious steam behind them after this victory over Hamilton. Ross Callachan, David Milinkovic and Dario Zanatta scored in Lanarkshire to extend the Edinburgh club’s recent record to 11 games without defeat and eight successive clean sheets.
This success was efficient and clinical, as has been the norm recently. The relentless nature of Craig Levein’s Hearts is something to behold at this minute, particularly with a team increasingly dominated by Brits. It is a notable change from not so long ago.
Last January, Hearts signed nine players and only one – Aaron Hughes – was British. Levein’s squad overhaul is now prioritising people closer to home. Hearts’ starting line-up was entirely British for this encounter and the manager was rewarded with another win without a concession at the other end. You have to wonder where the next opposition goal will come from.
A goalless first half gave way to a more lively second period, with Callachan stroking Steven Naismith’s low cross home to break the deadlock on 66 minutes. Milinkovic then doubled the advantage after climbing off the substitutes’ bench, and fellow substitute Zanatta struck his first senior Hearts goal in the dying minutes.
Constant rain left the SuperSeal Stadium’s astroturf surface slick but that didn’t deter Hearts manager Levein from naming a young side. Andy Irving got a competitive debut in maroon after the 17-year-old spent the first half of the season on loan at Berwick Rangers. He impressed Levein by scoring a fine free-kick in a friendly against Vitesse Arnhem in Spain. That led to a place alongside 16-year-old Harry Cochrane and Ross Callachan – something of a veteran at 24 – in a three-man Hearts central midfield for this one.
Hamilton were aiming to recover from their Scottish Cup exit at the hands of near neighbours Motherwell on Saturday. Pre-match news that deals had been agreed to take influential midfielder Greg Docherty to Rangers and defender Michael Devlin to Preston would not have helped the home fans’ mood.
They had the first genuine opening of the night through Danny Redmond, although the Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin was equal to the task. He has been central to a club record eight consecutive clean sheets and an unbeaten run now numbering 11 games. With those statistics in mind, the visitors harboured a natural reluctance to concede anything in Lanarkshire. The Hamilton defender Xavier Tomas was the last man to score against Hearts back on December 2.
Both teams struggled to retain possession of the ball during the first half as individual tussles took place all over the pitch. Naismith, Hearts’ recent loan signing from Norwich City, led the forward line flanked by Don Cowie and Lewis Moore. Service was at a premium, as it was at the other end for Hamilton’s new recruit, Greek forward Marios Ogkmpoe.
From Ogkmpoe’s lay-off, David Templeton skewed an effort wide of goal with 33 minutes gone. Hearts constructed a lovely flowing passing move from left wing to right and back again, featuring a sublime crossfield ball from young Irvine. Mitchell fastened on to the pass and cut back for Naismith but Tomas intercepted.
Templeton went significantly closer on 42 minutes for Hamilton. Redmond’s corner was headed into the air by Irving at the back post, and the former Hearts winger struck it first time to force McLaughlin into a vital one-handed stop. That was the clearest chance of a fairly underwhelming first 45 minutes.
Arnaud Djoum’s introduction for Cochrane was intended to enliven proceedings. The swirling rain helped nobody but play did begin to open up slightly. Hearts full-back Demetri Mitchell cleared Scott McMann’s cross inside his own six-yard area before sprinting forward to get on the end of a quick counter-attack. The defender’s effort looked netbound until Alex Gogic threw his body in the way.
It sounded like every one of the 1077 travelling fans roared for a penalty on 53 minutes when Moore feel in a tussle with Tomas. Referee Nick Walsh was unmoved and play continued at a quickening tempo. Levein replaced Moore with Milinkovic just after the hour in another attempt to help his charges create more scoring opportunities.
It was Hamilton’s turn to shout for a penalty in the 64th minute. Christophe Berra used his thigh to direct a bouncing ball back towards McLaughlin. As the keeper emerged and Ogkmpoe tried to get a touch, the forward went over but again the officials were not interested. Berra then blocked a shot by Templeton.
The Accies probing was halted in its tracks when Callachan gratefully put Hearts ahead. Gogic played a wayward backpass towards his goalkeeper Gary Woods and Naismith quickly intercepted. He squared for Callachan to stroke into an empty net – the same one the midfielder scored into last time he played here in September. He celebrated this one just as joyfully.
Milinkovic added a second when he collected Irving’s loping through pass in behind the home defence. The winger’s composed low finish beyond Woods ended the game as a contest. Another substitute, Zanatta, got in on the scoring act three minutes from the end. Naismith’s driving run and a cross by Milinkovic allowed the Canadian to fire home first time via a deflection at the back post.
Hamilton: (3-5-1-1): Woods; Gogic, Tomas, McMann; Lyon, Ferguson, MacKinnon, Redmond (Rojano 72), Imrie; Templeton; Ogkmpoe. Unused subs: Fulton, Hughes, Tierney, Want, Cunningham, Kozoronis.
Hearts (4-3-3): McLaughlin; Randall, Souttar, Berra, Mitchell; Callachan, Cochrane (Djoum 46), Irving; Cowie (Zanatta 84), Naismith, Moore (Milinkovic 62). Unused subs: J Hamilton, Hughes, M Smith, McDonal.