It says much about the positive momentum at Hearts these days that they can play some way short of their best and still end up toasting a comprehensive win and stretching their advantage over their main title rivals.
As the half-time whistle sounded on Saturday, not even the most optimistic Hearts supporter could have envisaged that, just an hour later, they’d be lapping up their first 5-1 victory since that May 2012 glory day against Hibs at Hampden.
Cowdenbeath, widely expected to rock up at Tynecastle and park the bus, had thrown off the shackles after an encouraging display in their 3-2 defeat by Hibs at Easter Road the previous weekend. The Blue Brazil were more than worthy of being level at the interval after Callum Gallagher had cancelled out Billy King’s opener. By half-time, the Gorgie natives were restless, with some even booing the off-colour league leaders up the tunnel.
After some purposeful talking in the home dressing-room, Hearts emerged with renewed vigour after the break and swiftly broke Cowdenbeath’s resistance with a couple of goals in the first ten minutes of the second half from Jamie Walker and Osman Sow.
With the hosts’ tails up, there was no way back for the deflated Blue Brazil. As the game meandered uneventfully towards its climax, it was left for Dale Carrick to come on and enliven the last quarter of an hour. The fired-up substitute, making his return from injury, had three shots from distance, with two finding the net and the other cannoning off the underside of the crossbar.
By full-time, the Tynecastle crowd was in full party mode, basking in the glorious autumn sunshine and belting out their 5-1 ditties. News of dropped points by Rangers and Hibs simply enhanced the mood.
All’s well that ends well, although head coach Robbie Neilson, despite his satisfaction at what finished up an emphatic victory, stressed the need for patience in games where Hearts are not allowed to have things all their own way from the first whistle.
“People don’t realise how difficult these games can be,” he said. “Cowdenbeath are a really well-organised, strong, athletic team, so it’s really hard to break them down. It can take time. We got the first goal, then had an opportunity to make it two, but then they go up the park and we lose a goal. We changed a few things at half-time and we came out doing the things we wanted do.
“We got the goals and it became comfortable in the end. But we need to try and do it for 90 minutes, not just ten minutes at the start and 45 minutes in the second half. We need to keep going and doing it continually, so that’s something for us to work on.
“It’s going to be a really difficult season. It will be hard for us to break teams down so we need everyone at the club to be patient.”
First-half issues aside, this was another excellent day for Hearts. In addition to winning handsomely when not at their best and restoring their three-point advantage over Rangers at the top of the table, they were also able to demonstrate their strength in depth.
With Sam Nicholson, Kevin McHattie and Prince Buaben absent, Walker, Scott Robinson and Adam Eckersley all came in and made an impression in their first league starts of the season, while Callum Paterson returned from injury and replaced the hitherto impressive Jordan McGhee at right-back. Carrick’s late impact off the bench was also notable on a day when those less prominent in the early weeks of the season came to the fore.
“There’s no fringe men here,” Neilson said when asked about his stand-ins. “They’ll all get chances to play. We spoke to them all at the start of the season and said that ‘you might get five games or you might get 35 games, but everyone’s got a part to play’. Everyone has to be ready to step in. The 11 that finish a game are just as important as the 11 that start it, so it’s important that everyone’s properly prepared and ready to go.”
It was a couple of ever-presents who got Hearts on the front foot against the bottom-of-the-table Blue Brazil. In the 15th minute, following an uneventful opening to the game, captain Danny Wilson strolled into the Cowden half and played a precise, defence-piercing pass in to the path of King, who took a touch before shooting high past Robbie Thomson from the edge of the box. “Danny’s pass was world-class – 95 per cent of the people in the stadium would never have seen that pass was on until he’d done it,” said Neilson.
It wasn’t the signal for the floodgates to open just yet, though. After King had missed a good chance to double Hearts’ lead, Cowdenbeath went up the park and levelled in the 21st minute when Gallagher forced home the rebound from eight yards out after Neil Alexander had made an excellent save to deny Kudas Oyenuga.
Hearts were unable to get back on the front foot and it needed a half-time discussion, allied to a slackening off from Cowdenbeath, to spark them into life. “There’s no point going in at half-time ranting and raving,” said Neilson. “We normally talk and try to fix it.”
And fix it they did. Walker got Hearts back in front three minutes after the break when, from a tight angle at the near post, he glanced in a looping header from Eckersley’s cross. “I think that’s the first header I’ve ever scored,” he said afterwards.
Walker was heavily involved in Hearts’ third, in 55 minutes, when he won a penalty after going down under a challenge from substitute Darren Brownlie. Osman Sow grabbed the ball off Walker, who initially wanted to take the spot-kick, and made no mistake. Cowden manager Jimmy Nicholl didn’t think it was a penalty, but Walker said: “I thought it was a clear penalty. He took me before the ball.”
With that, the game was as good as over, and, as both sides, went through the motions, it was left to Carrick, who replaced King for his first appearance since the opening-day win over Rangers, to add some gloss to the scoreline with a couple of long-distance strikes.