The Hearts fans who headed to Tynecastle on Saturday would have been expecting a reaction to the previous week’s Edinburgh derby defeat at Easter Road, and their team duly produced one, blowing Partick Thistle away with three first-half goals.
Kyle Lafferty, Steven Naismith and John Souttar found the net to send Hearts on their way to a first win since February’s 3-0 Scottish Cup fifth-round triumph over St Johnstone. The three points leave Hearts in pole position to claim the remaining top-six place ahead of Motherwell. The Lanarkshire club do have a game in hand over the Jambos but, on paper, appear to have the tougher fixtures before the split. That being said, manager Craig Levein acknowledged that merely making the top six falls short of his and the club’s targets.
“I don’t want be sitting here talking about finishing in the top six,” he admitted. “Our ambition is to finish higher than that and try and become a regular competitor in the Europa League. I said it at the pre-match press conference – it’s been a tumultuous season. There’s been a lot of ups and downs and ins and outs, a lot of changes for the players to deal with as well.
“It’s been tough playing away from home for all those matches, then going to Murrayfield and obviously the financial situation with building the stand so there’s been so many things this season that have been a bit of a distraction.
“We don’t want to start looking ahead to next season yet. It’s important for our supporters that we finish the season strongly and Saturday was the first step in doing that. Hopefully, we can pick up another three points in a couple of weeks.”
Levein made three changes to the side that lost at Easter Road eight days previously. Aaron Hughes returned to slot in at left-back, with Danny Amankwaa and Don Cowie on the left and right of midfield respectively. Lewis Moore, Connor Randall and Harry Cochrane dropped to the bench.
Hearts were positive from the off, with Christophe Berra, Cowie and Naismith all going close with headers, with Thistle offering nothing in an attacking sense.
It therefore came as no surprise when the opening goal arrived for Hearts on 17 minutes, courtesy of some fine football. Joaquim Adao fired a penetrating pass in to Cowie’s feet, who was aware of Naismith’s position and found him with a brilliant first-time back heel. He in turn played in Lafferty and Hearts’ top scorer had plenty time to think about how to finish, and stayed cool to slot the ball between Tomas Cerny’s legs.
Having made a habit of grinding out 1-0 wins this season, Naismith’s quick-fire second provided a welcome cushion. The impressive Adao won possession on the right deep in Partick’s half and had the presence of mind to await Naismith’s arrival in the box before rolling him in for a simple close-range finish.
Cowie forced a decent save from Cerny before Hearts made the game safe on the stroke of half-time. Michael Smith’s long throw from the right was allowed to travel a long way, and Souttar took full advantage to turn it past Cerny for his first goal in maroon.
That effectively rendered the second half a virtual training exercise for Hearts. Thistle showed some improvement with Miles Storey forcing a couple of saves from Jon McLaughlin, but the damage had been done and Hearts were able to ease themselves through the remainder and into the international break.
While obviously pleased with the first-half display, Levein was reluctant to go overboard in his praise at the interval. “I didn’t say ‘well done’ at half-time because my experience is that if you say ‘well done’ they think they’ve done a good job and the game is over.
“The tempo of the match in the second half came down and I think that was the reason we didn’t add to our goals. Overall, though, I can’t complain.”
Adao’s performance and influence on the game was especially pleasing for Levein, who also singled out Danny Amankwaa’s continued improvement. “Joaquim was really good,” he appraised. “He’s still not up to 100 percent yet and he also got a couple of hefty challenges and that was one of the reasons he came off. He was feeling his knee a bit but I thought he was good, as were a lot of players.
“I thought young Danny for his first start in a while did enough to make me feel good about having him on the bench or starting him. He showed enough to make me feel happy about that.”
Opposite number Alan Archibald admitted his side weren’t at the races from the start and believed his players should have anticipated Hearts’ approach to the game far better than they did.
“We knew they were going to press us. They’re off the back of a defeat in the derby and they’re at home so we knew what was coming but we didn’t heed the warning,” he said. “It was individual errors mixed with our overall poor display. I just thought in the first 15, 20 minutes the goal was coming and we didn’t address it, which is bitterly disappointing.”