It was all treats and no tricks for Hearts on Halloween in Glasgow’s west end, as Robbie Neilson’s men leapfrogged Aberdeen into second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership with a 4-0 win over Partick Thistle.
The position the Jam Tarts find themselves in is starkly different from the last time they visited Maryhill and scored four. Their relegation to the Championship was confirmed despite a 4-2 win in April 2014 on the same ground. They’ve come a long way since then, and are building momentum in a way that may suggest Neilson’s primary target of top six may be a little conservative.
In terms of individual performances from his players, Neilson’s expectations are always high. Despite two goals apiece from Juanma and Osman Sow, their manager still expects more from his front pair. “I spoke to them in the dressing-room and while they scored two good goals, I don’t think they played very well to be honest,” he said.
“The rest of their game could be better and should be better. I want more all the time. The two of them are top players. I believe the two of them could be top goal scorers in Scotland but they need to do it all the time. They need to hold the ball in better, link it better, make better runs in behind. They do it, they score goals, but they have to do it more consistently.”
With Blazej Augustyn suspended, Jordan McGhee was given a start in his favoured centre-back position following two impressive performances at left back. That spot was taken by fit again Nigerian internationalist Juwon Oshaniwa, while Danny Swanson returned to the starting line-up in place of the injured Jamie Walker. Calum Paterson took the skipper’s armband on his 100th league appearance for the club.
Neilson’s side started like a team that knew a win would take them second the table. Paterson fired an early free-kick wide before Arnaud Djoum, keen to add to his first goal scored against Celtic three days previously, saw a goal-bound effort from the edge of the area blocked by Dan Seaborne. Swanson’s follow-up had stand-in keeper Ryan Scully at full stretch but bounced wide of the far post.
That early flurry seemed to jolt the hosts into life and they began to pressurise the Hearts backline. Mustapha Dumbuya’s deep cross found Stuart Bannigan, who controlled well before sending a dipping volley narrowly over Neil Alexander’s crossbar. McGhee was in the right place at the right time when he diverted David Amoo’s low drive behind from the resulting corner.
Hearts were ahead eight minutes before the break. Swanson’s initial delivery was met by Sam Nicholson’s head, forcing Scully to parry. Osman Sow was first to the lose ball however, and he sent it back into the six yard box for Juanma to prod home his sixth of the season.
Neilson revealed he wasn’t a happy man at half-time. “We were lucky to come in at 1-0. Partick were probably the better team with the better chances, but didn’t score,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to come in after 45 minutes and get them geed up for the second half. They need to be at it all the time. If we’d played like that in the first half on Wednesday [against Celtic] we’d have been 4-0 down. They must do it all the time.”
Any hopes of a Partick comeback were extinguished soon after the restart as Hearts stepped it up a gear. Juanma turned provider for Sow within five minutes, picking out the Swede on the edge of the area after a determined surge down the right. Sow then spun into space and, after a fortuitous break of the ball, sent a smart finish past Scully into the far corner.
The points were securely heading back to Gorgie three minutes after the hour. Juanma again made headway down the right after a one-two with Nicholson before picking out Djoum. The Belgian showed nimble feet in the area to create space but was tripped by Seaborne as he was about to pull the trigger. Juanma stepped up and sent Scully the wrong way with his penalty to claim a brace, and was promptly ‘rewarded’ by being substituted. Hearts looked in the mood for more goals, and Paterson’s vicious drive was well saved by Scully on the hour.
That proved to be the keeper’s last positive involvement before he was sent off in a bizarre end to the game.
Sow was put in on goal by debutant substitute Dario Zanatta. The No.10 skipped past Scully before being wiped out and referee Steven McLean had no real option but to dismiss Scully, and with Alan Archibald having made all three substitutions, former Tynecastle favourite Ryan Stevenson donned the gloves. The former Hearts man made a decent fist of attempting to stop Sow’s spot-kick, but couldn’t prevent a fourth Hearts goal.
Despite overtaking Aberdeen in the league table, Neilson is careful to keep the longer term picture in mind. The Dons have not won in the league since their 3-1 victory at Tynecastle last month, while Hearts haven’t looked back since, unbeaten in five league games. “They’ve got a team that’s been together for three of four years,” said the Hearts boss. “They’ve got stability in the top flight, and probably 16 to 18 players that have probably played 200 games in the top flight. It makes a huge difference.
“Today’s first-half performance is sometimes down to guys getting used to the environment, coming to Partick. It’s a wet night, it’s difficult, it’s dark. I’ve got guys from Nigeria, Spain and Brazil so they’re not used to this kind of environment. I think the advantage Aberdeen will have is in January-February time when their guys are used to grinding results out. We’ll need to do it as well.”
That may prove to be the case, but for now, Hearts fans can enjoy the sight of their team riding high in Scottish football’s top flight once again.