Hearts’ ten key steps on road to the title

Ann Budge appointed Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson, below, who went on to sign star players such as Morgaro Gomis and Osman Sow
Ann Budge appointed Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson, below, who went on to sign star players such as Morgaro Gomis and Osman Sow
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It was anticipated as the most competitive second tier in Scottish football history.

Instead, Hearts have romped to a landslide victory, leaving Hibs, Rangers and others trailing in their wake.

The Edinburgh club secured the league title at the weekend with seven games still remaining and became the first club in Britain to win their championship.

As with any success, preparation and hard work have been pivotal. Key appointments in important positions put stable foundations in place for the task ahead. A strategic recruitment drive has paid off, goals have been scored, opponents brushed aside, and fans entertained.

The Evening News has pored through this campaign to identify ten key moments in Hearts’ league triumph. Returning to the Premiership was the club’s aim from the first day of pre-season training, and these are some of the main events which helped facilitate automatic promotion:

May 12, 2014: Possibly the most important day in the last year at Tynecastle. Ann Budge takes charge of Hearts via a management agreement whilst administrators BDO complete paperwork to get the club out of administration. She recruits Craig Levein as director of football, who in turn appoints Robbie Neilson head coach. Manager Gary Locke and his assistant Billy Brown are dispensed with, as are several senior players including Jamie MacDonald, Ryan Stevenson, Jamie Hamill and Dylan McGowan. Neilson’s promotion from his role as under-20 coach at Riccarton is greeted with surprise. Levein explains that he wants Hearts to develop coaches as well as players. Neilson forms a coaching team of Stevie Crawford and Jack Ross as assistant coach and under-20 coach respectively.

June 12, 2014: Experienced former Dundee United and Birmingham City midfielder Morgaro Gomis becomes the first of a host of new signings. He pens a three-year contract and is soon followed by James Keatings, Neil Alexander, Alim Ozturk, Soufian El Hassnaoui, Prince Buaben, Scott Gallacher and Osman Sow. Neilson’s squad for the new season begins to take shape and the aim is to get Hearts promoted at the first attempt.

August 10, 2014: A perfect opening to the campaign as Hearts record an inspiring 2-1 win against Rangers at Ibrox Stadium. Captain Danny Wilson heads the opening goal from Billy King’s corner early in the second half. Just as the visitors think they have done enough for a 1-0 win, Rangers equalise in the 90th minute through Nicky Law. Then comes the first sign of the fighting spirit which would serve Hearts well throughout the season. They instantly go on the attack and Sam Nichsolon flicks a through ball for Osman Sow to slot a precise finish into the net in stoppage-time.

August 17, 2014: Seven days later, Hearts follow up their Ibrox heroics by moving top of the league with a 2-1 win over Hibs at Tynecastle. Nicholson’s incisive run and shot from 25 yards sails into the net to open the scoring just 14 minutes from time. Buaben scores his first goal in maroon from the penalty spot four minutes later. Farid El Alagui scores a late consolation for Hibs but the day ends with Hearts in first place, a position they had no plans to relinquish.

August/September: Hearts continued flexing their muscles with a 4-0 win at Raith Rovers and a 4-1 home defeat of Falkirk. Still they craved more strength, and the additions of English left-back Adam Eckersley and Spanish midfielder Miguel Pallardo were both masterful. Eckersley, a former Manchester United youth, left Denmark after six years with Horsens and AGF to return to the UK. Pallardo came from Spain’s La Liga, where he played with Valencia, Getafe and Levante. Both would quickly establish themselves as fans’ favourites.

October 26, 2014: Hearts are unbeaten after ten league games and find themselves 1-0 down against Hibs at Easter Road with the game entering stoppage time. Dominique Malonga’s goal looks like ending their run, until Ozturk receives possession around 40 yards from goal. He takes a touch forward and unleashes a venomous shot from around 35 yards which screams into the Hibs net via the underside of the crossbar. In the technical area, Neilson is visibly moved with emotion for the first time as Hearts coach and is pictured screaming with joy.

November 22, 2014: A 2-0 home win over Rangers puts Hearts nine points clear of the Glasgow club at the top of the Championship. For many supporters, this is the day they genuinely start believing that the title will be theirs. Jason Holt scores an exquisite opening goal with the outside of his right foot from the edge of the penalty area before Jamie Walker completes the scoring from the penalty spot. Rangers have to play much of the match with ten men after Steven Smith gets a straight red card in the 21st minute.

January 8, 2015: Into the new year and Neilson is trying to cope with a mini crisis in the striking department. Osman Sow, Dale Carrick and Soufian El Hassnaoui are injured, leaving James Keatings as the only recognised striker. Gary Oliver is recalled early from a loan at Stenhousemuir to provide back-up. Neilson’s solution is to sign Genero Zeefuik on loan from FC Groningen, which proves to be an inspired move. The burly Dutchman has scored nine goals in ten appearances for Hearts so far, including a hat-trick in the record-breaking 10-0 win over Cowdenbeath last month. His arrival acts like a tonic on the team and led to calls from fans for him to be signed permanently.

January 24, 2015: An unexpected 3-2 defeat at home to Falkirk ends Hearts’ unbeaten league run after 20 matches. Talk of going through the entire season without losing was regularly dismissed by Neilson but, the longer his team went without a loss, the more fans believed it was possible. This result put such thoughts to bed and seemed to remove a certain pressure from the shoulders of Neilson and his players. A response was crucial and Hearts ensured this game was used as a proverbial kick up the backside at a vital time in the season. They have gone on to win every game since that defeat.

March 21, 2015: The 3-0 win at Falkirk last Saturday was a clinical performance worthy of champions. It transpired as the win which secured Hearts the league title and automatic promotion, which was confirmed 24 hours later when Hibs lost 2-0 at home to Rangers.