Robbie Neilson’s post-match admission that there was a subdued home dressing-room in the aftermath of his side’s latest Championship victory merely highlights the growing expectation within this current Hearts team.
Despite recovering from a stagnant opening to record a 2-1 success over Raith Rovers – their 28th victory in a remarkable surge towards the league title – Neilson disclosed there was an air of despondency amongst his players after the game.
The same couldn’t be said for the 15,000 home supporters, though, who were already in buoyant mood prior to Saturday’s encounter after news had filtered through that Capital rivals Hibs had crashed out of the Scottish Cup semi-finals against Falkirk in a lunchtime kick-off at Hampden.
The Jambos have had the Championship crown sewn up since last month, having sealed promotion back to the Premiership with seven games to spare. But, despite this season’s heroics, Neilson has never hidden his desire in retaining that winning momentum in what has turned out to be a brief but satisfying stay in Scottish football’s second tier.
“Three months ago, if we’d come in and won that game 2-1 we’d have been delighted, desperate to get the points as we were going for the title,” the Hearts head coach explained. “But the players were a wee bit down, a bit flat as the guys know they haven’t hit the standards and that shows where we are at this moment in time.
“The expectation levels are so high that a 2-1 win at home to Raith Rovers and the players are flat. In a way it’s a good thing but, at the same time, we need to make sure we enjoy these victories because there won’t be as many next year.
“We’ve been in a situation that we won the league with seven games to go and sometimes the levels can come off a wee bit. I thought the performance was better than it was against Alloa, better than it was against Hibs, but we’ve still got a bit to go. It’s important the players stay focused.
“Football is about winning matches and that’s what we’ve done. We had to make sure we got a result coming off the back of a derby defeat. We made a few changes and I thought the guys that came in gave us a lift.”
Neilson, as expected on the back of last weekend’s loss to Hibs, made four changes with goalkeeper Scott Gallacher handed a rare start with No.1 Neil Alexander having played his final game this season after undergoing surgery on a broken finger last week.
Midfielders Kenny Anderson and Sam Nicholson were also restored to the starting XI as was Soufian El Hassnaoui, who partnered Osman Sow in attack.
The champions, though, laboured in the opening exchanges, unable to penetrate their opponents in the way they have in most matches at Tynecastle this season.
That said, Rovers themselves seemed content to keep possession without venturing too far into the Hearts half with neither goalkeeper looking likely to be beaten.
Captain Danny Wilson did direct a header over Kevin Cuthbert’s crossbar from a Jamie Walker corner as the hosts finally started to take control of proceedings. Anderson, who hasn’t quite hit the heights expected since scoring on his debut in the 3-2 win at Livingston in February, was next to try his luck on the Raith goal after some intricate build-up from Nicholson and Sow, but the Dutchman miscued his effort well wide of the target from the edge of the box.
The chanting from the home support in the direction of referee Willie Collum was far from complimentary and the whistler did nothing to appease those fans after Callum Paterson was sent tumbling in the area.
However, the ball had fallen kindly to the lurking Walker, who drove his effort against the legs of Cuthbert before rebounding to safety. Nicholson took matters into his own hands in the 34th minute when, after collecting the ball from Sow, he drove across the visitors’ box before finding the space to angle his shot beyond the Raith No.1 from 12 yards for the 20-year-old’s fifth goal of the season.
Nicholson, however, still feels his conversion rate isn’t what it should be, as he explained afterwards.
“Goals are something I need to bring into my game as I don’t score enough,” the winger stressed. “I’m, of course, delighted to get another one but I need to get more. I’ve scored more with my left foot even though I’m right-footed.”
Hearts’ second of the afternoon, a composed finish from El Hassnaoui ten minutes after the restart, paved the way for Neilson to introduce academy graduate Sean McKirdy, 17, into the fray for his competitive league debut, the teenager’s only other appearance this season coming in the 4-1 Petrofac Training Cup defeat by Livingston in August.
Former Jambo Calum Elliot’s neat effort to Gallacher’s right reduced the deficit midway through the second half but the Fifers rarely looked like securing an unlikely point in the remaining 24 minutes.
Cuthbert, meanwhile, could only look on as Walker’s strike from the angle of the box came back off the far post but the goalkeeper did do well to deflect substitute Gary Oliver’s net-bound shot onto the opposite post just moments after.
Hearts still have Hibs’ record total of 89 points in the second-tier firmly within their grasp and are just two points shy of their neighbours’ achievements in 1999 – this weekend’s trip to Cowdenbeath the first opportunity to reach the 90-point mark. Saturday’s goals have also taken the club closer to hitting a century in the league this season, although, sitting on 92 with just two games to spare, that mark may be beyond them.
“We’re looking at the points and the goals so we want to try and keep as much motivation as we can. It’s important Stevie [Crawford] and I make sure the players work hard in training and get a result this Saturday which will set us up nicely for the Rangers game,” Neilson added.