Echoing out of Cowdenbeath train station late last night were the chants of joyous Hearts fans. They firmly believe their team are on a charge to the league title and it is hard to argue with them.
The 12 points of Christmas have further energised a support already walking with a swagger this season. After a 2-0 win at Cowdenbeath increased Hearts’ lead over Rangers at the top of the Championship, their fans partied into the chilly Fife night awaiting transport back to Edinburgh.
The tight pitch, the stock car racing track, the perimeter fencing – none of Central Park’s trademark features distracted the visitors. They set out, with a different formation, to win this rearranged league fixture and move 12 points ahead of Rangers. They did so with minimum fuss and two exquisite goals from James Keatings and Callum Paterson. While supporters celebrated on the train station platform just a few hundred yards from the ground, head coach Robbie Neilson, pictured, was inside in a far more reserved state. He stressed no-one should become carried away but admitted being thoroughly satisfied with a 12-point cushion.
“I think anybody would’ve taken that, wouldn’t they? Not just us,” he said. “It’s pleasing but there is still a lot of hard work to get done. We’ve still got injuries to deal with, lack of form, lack of goalscoring. It will come. We need to tinker with things and move people about to try and get results.
“There are still 19 games to go and that’s 57 points so a 12-point lead can soon be whittled down. All it takes is a bad run of form and it’s away. We need to continue to keep working. The boys are in training today and we’ll get ready for Livingston on Saturday. I think that’s a huge game for us because Livingston and Celtic are the only teams to beat us this season. We need to make sure we go down there and right that wrong.”
There was a minute’s silence observed before kick-off last night for the victims of the tragic events which took place in Glasgow on Monday.
Neilson adopted a 4-3-1-2 formation and instructed his team to use a direct style of play on the tight Central Park pitch. Both his forwards scored in emphatic fashion. Keatings lashed Adam Eckersley’s cross into the net first time after 24 minutes for his seventh goal of the season. That followed an encouraging start by the home team, who initially passed the ball better than their visitors.
Keatings almost added his eighth goal with a 25-yard free-kick which struck the base of the post moments later. Then Paterson wasted a glaring chance to double Hearts’ lead. He shot wide after fastening on to Keatings’ loping pass in behind a square Cowdenbeath defence.
Jimmy Nicholl’s side started the second half with more purpose and Lewis Milne forced the Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander into action to stop his 25-yard drive. Then came a glaring opportunity for an equaliser on 57 minutes. Colin Marshall set off on a penetrating run from midfield and slipped a pass to Sean Higgins on the edge of Hearts’ penalty area. The striker’s shot was powerful but Alexander smothered the ball with an impressive stop.
Cowdenbeath were made to regret not taking that opportunity when Paterson scored just four minutes later. The more direct style of football to utilise Paterson’s aerial threat did not exactly suit Hearts. Nonetheless, it was a long ball to the converted right-back which resulted in an explosive second goal. Miguel Pallardo’s diagonal was headed into the air by Paterson, who then chested the ball down and volleyed beautifully beyond Cowdenbeath goalkeeper Robbie Thomson from 18 yards with his weaker left foot.
“We had worked on him knocking it down to someone else but he took it a step further and knocked it down to himself,” joked Neilson. “Callum has fantastic technique and I believe he’s destined for the top. He’s got the physicality, he’s got the pace, the power and the technique to get himself to the top. He just needs to keep working. I couldn’t ask any more from him. He works so hard and he’s desperate to do well.
“Callum gave us a bit more of a focus. He played there last year and, although he’s a right-back, he definitely gives us that aerial threat up there. We knew it was a very narrow pitch so we couldn’t get wide men in as we like to. We had to go a bit more direct and it worked for us.
“We stuck to what we were trying to do in the game. We changed the formation a wee bit and we got the rewards for it. At 1-0 we were pretty dominant, although you’re always wary of losing a goal. Once we got to 2-0 we were pretty comfortable and we saw out the game. Cowdenbeath had a couple of chances near the end when they had four men up front but that was always going to happen when they went gung-ho.”
Alexander was called upon to hold a header from Cowdenbeath substitute Craig Sutherland. The goalkeeper was then almost caught in possession of the ball in his own six-yard box as he hesitated to clear. By then the game was won, though. The visitors saw out the 90 minutes and returned to the C apital with a considerable points cushion Rangers will find very difficult to overhaul.
The 12 points of Christmas might well be a telling total come the end of the season.