Sixteen points ahead with 14 games left. It is a daunting advantage for those aiming to beat Hearts to automatic promotion.
Granted, Rangers have two games in hand, but the Edinburgh club have points on the board. They not only intend to win the league but do it in style and even increase that sizeable gap.
An impressive display at Alloa on Saturday banished any notion of a wobble after Falkirk ended their unbeaten league run. Confidence didn’t seem to be a problem, nor was resolve, and the end result was a convincing win. Defender Callum Paterson scored Hearts’ fourth goal with a header moments from the end and explained why his team want to flex their muscles over the coming weeks.
“There were always going to be questions coming off that defeat after such a long run,” he acknowledged. “Hopefully that performance proved everyone wrong and showed we could come back and get a great result. People are always going to want us pegged back. You want it to be exciting but we’re doing pretty well. Hopefully we can keep the form going and stretch the gap.
“I’d like to keep winning games. I don’t care what anyone thinks about us. We’re here to win the league and do our job properly. If we’re going to do that, we’re going to do it in style as well.”
There was certainly a stylish element to this win on the Indodrill Stadium astroturf. Miguel Pallardo’s opening goal on five minutes illustrated that panache. He collected the ball and stepped forward to rifle a screaming 30-yard shot into the top corner of the net. It was the Spaniard’s first Hearts goal and one to savour.
James Keatings doubled the advantage on 12 minutes with another precise finish, this time low across goalkeeper Craig McDowall and into the corner of the net with his left foot. In between, the former Hearts midfielder Stephen Simmons had a chance to equalise and change the game’s complexion. One-on-one with Neil Alexander, his rolled left-footed shot bounced off the inside of the post before Paterson hoofed it clear.
Alloa also appealed for a penalty when Simmons fell under close attention from Pallardo but referee Stephen Finnie ignored the claims. Keatings then arced a 25-yard free-kick off McDowall’s crossbar from 25 yards as the interval approached. Alloa did reduce the deficit to 2-1 shortly after the hour when Greig Spence headed home Mark Docherty’s cross, but five minutes later Jamie Walker put the game to bed.
He set off on a solo run, evaded two opponents and prodded the ball beneath McDowall into the net. Paterson headed the fourth from substitute Billy King’s corner to complete an enjoyable evening’s work in front of the BBC Alba cameras.
“We wanted to get back to playing our usual football, the same game we’ve played all season,” said Paterson. “We’ve scored goals so we went to Alloa to play as we usually do and get the result, which we did. The pitch is going to be used as an excuse if you get beat but we’ve played on all surfaces. You play on astro when you’re younger and you’ll play on it throughout your career.
“To get a goal myself is a bonus. Loads of teams struggle at Alloa. They aren’t a bad team. They’ve turned their place into a quite a fortress so hopefully they can do well this season and we can carry on doing our thing.
“We went 1-0 up after 90 seconds last week and we ended up losing to Falkirk. We had to keep the foot on the gas after we scored the first goal and keep going right to the end. We didn’t do that last week and it backfired. We’ve learned from our mistakes and we’re just going to carry on.”
An ominous warning for their closest rivals. Part-time clubs like Alloa would not be expected to beat Hearts but, as Paterson alluded, the Indodrill surface can be a leveller. Robbie Neilson has now seen his team win twice there this season and will be grateful for not having to return there.
“We’re happy where we are,” he said. “We’d rather have the points on the board than have games in hand. We have 14 games left, and our focus is on Livingston this week, where we’ll look to give ourselves a 19-point lead. We started the game well, like last week, but crucially we pushed on and kept our passing game going. We didn’t panic when Alloa got the goal back and we could have scored a few more.”
Keatings was restored to the starting line-up – along with Pallardo and Alim Ozturk – and justified his selection with his sixth goal in eight games. “We’ve got lots of players who can score goals, so it’s good to spread them around the team,” continued Neilson. “I was delighted for Miguel to get his first goal, it was a fantastic strike. Jamie Walker took his goal well too. At 2-0 up, you can start coasting and get a bit careless. If you lose a goal it can give the opposition a lift, but we responded really well and kept going.”