Hibs have spent the entire season in a fruitless pursuit of Hearts. Now, with the league title secured, a group of Tynecastle players are chasing one of their Easter Road counterparts.
Jason Cummings is currently the Scottish Championship’s top scorer with 13 league goals. Five Hearts players are among those trying to hunt him down and take the title as the league’s most lethal predator.
James Keatings and Jamie Walker have 11 goals each so far, both tucked in behind Queen of the South forwards Derek Lyle and Gavin Reilly, who sit on 12. Osman Sow (10), Genero Zeefuik (9) and Billy King (8) are the other contenders from Gorgie. Securing automatic promotion allows Hearts some collective satisfaction at achieving their stated aim for the season, but those above are out to bulge more nets in the remaining seven matches.
The battle to be the league’s top scorer is intensifying on both sides of Edinburgh as well as outside the Capital city. Also in the mix are Cummings’ Easter Road counterpart Dominique Malonga (10), Alloa’s Liam Buchanan (10), plus Falkirk’s Rory Loy (9) and Jordan White of Livingston (9).
The so-called business end of the campaign is upon us and most teams have something major to play for, be it a play-off place or their very survival in the division. Hearts, of course, have completed their assignment and can look ahead to reclining in peace come May when the play-offs begin at both ends of the table. The one disadvantage for their strikers is that they have fewer matches in which to catch Cummings as a result of avoiding the dreaded play-offs. They are unlikely to complain, yet it may make them even hungrier for goals over the next six weeks.
Marc McNulty finished last season with 17 Championship goals for Livingston, which earned him a £125,000 transfer to Sheffield United. He is evidence that the rewards of finishing top scorer in Scotland’s second tier can be considerable.
“This time last year it was in the back of my mind because my dream was always to play down in England and I knew there was still that chance to finish top goalscorer. There were always rumours that clubs were interested and scouts were watching you,” recalled McNulty.
“Obviously I didn’t quite get there [Falkirk’s Rory Loy finished on 20] but as a striker you just want to score in every game.
“The Championship is a really strong league this year so to score goals in that division is going to be more difficult. Whoever finishes top scorer will have done really well given the standard of teams.”
This season has brought an intense spotlight on the Championship as Hearts, Hibs and Rangers all found themselves fighting it out in the hope of returning to the Premiership.
Publicly, the party line is always that the team comes first. However, McNulty revealed that the top scorer accolade does drive strikers on privately once they sense the chance of some personal glory.
“First and foremost, every striker will say he just wants the best for the team. But wee things like being top scorer can give you that extra yard,” he continued. “You want to succeed and everyone wants to finish top goalscorer.
“The team is the most important but at the back of your mind, it’s always there that you want to do the best you can and scoring goals is the biggest part of a striker’s job.
“Jason Cummings will be thinking he wants to finish top goalscorer but, most importantly, Hibs need to be back in the top flight where they belong. That will be the biggest thing in the minds of their players, although Jason will still want to finish top goalscorer as well.”
The second tier in Scotland, as in England, can often be viewed as more competitive than the top flight. Getting out of it is no easy task, especially given the structure of the SPFL play-off system.
Finishing third or fourth in the Championship means a club must successfully negotiate six matches – three two-legged ties – to make it to the top tier.
McNulty explained the kind of intense competition amongst players who are desperate to earn a place at the top level of Scottish football.
“The players are a lot more physical in the Championship and and wouldn’t give you time on the ball. As soon as you take a touch, they’re on you,” said the Edinburgh-born striker.
“That means it’s harder to find that wee yard of space for a shot. If you’re a good striker, you’ll still find a way of making space and a few forwards in there have done that this season and got goals from it. You have to take your hat off to them for the goals they’ve scored in a league that’s never easy.”