JAMES Keatings’ winning goal sees Hearts end the year a colossal 15 points clear of Rangers at the top of the Scottish Championship.
Despite having a penalty saved by the Livingston goalkeeper Darren Jamieson, Keatings was on hand to convert the game’s only goal from close range on 25 minutes.
It was a goal which extended his team’s lead and compounded the theory that Hearts are certs to secure automatic promotion after Hibs’ 4-0 win over Rangers. It must be said they didn’t look like champions in the making during the second half of this encounter as Livingston passed the ball better and pushed their visitors back. However, Hearts’ resilience helped them see the game out to claim their third win in a week.
Livingston lined up in an attack-minded 4-4-2 formation, whilst Hearts made four changes from Tuesday night’s win at Cowdenbeath. Billy King, Alim Ozturk, Jason Holt and Sam Nicholson all returned to the starting line-up in front of a staggering number of travelling fans totalling more than 7000.
Livingston appealed for an early penalty when Michael McKenna charged into the box and collided with Ozturk, but referee John McKendrick was not interested in the claims.
That sparked Hearts into action and they began a period of relentless attacking, however they found Jamieson in inspired form. Keatings somehow sent Adam Eckersley’s cross wide from close range at the back post before Jamieson denied Holt with an instinctive one-handed parry.
Then came the penalty on 13 minutes, given when Kyle Jacobs fouled Holt after the Hearts player reached a loose ball first. Jamieson saved what was a poor penalty by Keatings with his legs. Minutes later, he stopped Nicholson’s header from Billy King’s cross.
Keatings wasn’t to be outdone, though. Like all good strikers, he dusted himself down after two glaring misses and was in place to convert the next opportunity. The impressive Billy King scampered down the left flank and prodded a cross into the six-yard area with his right foot. Keatings was lurking and found himself with a straightforward tap-in to open the scoring after 25 minutes.
Jordan White dispatched Livingston’s first effort on goal on 35 minutes after cutting inside his marker. Neil Alexander, the Hearts goalkeeper, was equal to the task. The visitors appeared to relax slightly having taken the lead and their lethargy continued into the second half. The tempo of Livingston’s play increased as they enjoyed their best spell of the game.
Young left-back Shaun Rutherford carved out an opening with a deep cross to the back post, where White could only head narrowly wide. The striker nodded another cross down into Alexander’s hands minutes later. As Hearts struggled to find rhythm and misplaced passes, their fans grew restless.
A break forward on 69 minutes ended with Nicholson’s prodded shot which Jamieson held. At the opposite end, Alexander collected Gary Glen’s low drive as Hearts largely continued to defend their lead. Substitute Myles Hippolyte tossed a long throw into the visitors’ penalty area and, after Danny Mullen’s volley was blocked, Declan Gallagher sent the rebound into the stand. It was the home side’s best chance of an equaliser.
The final period saw Hearts emerge from their shell and try to kill this game off. Substitute Gary Oliver was booked for diving having appeared to go down easily when challenged by Mullen after Prince Buaben’s header rebounded off a post. However, there was a moment of relief when another Livingston substitute, Rob Ogleby, was ruled offside converting Glen’s header in behind the visiting defence.
The sound of the final whistle brought much relief for everyone in maroon. Hearts had secured three points to stretch their lead at the top of the Championship ahead of next weekend’s New Year derby with Hibs at Tynecastle.
Livingston (4-4-2): Jamieson; Fordyce, Gallagher, Mensing, Rutherford; McKenna, Ky Jacobs, O’Brien, Glen; Mullen, White.
46: Hippolyte for McKenna
86: Ogleby for Ky Jacobs
86: Praprotnik for Rutherford
Unused subs: Walker, Sives, Robertson, Beaumont.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander; Paterson, Ozturk, Wilson, Eckersley; Buaben, Gomis; Nicholson, Holt, King; Keatings.
59: Pallardo for Holt
68: Oliver for Keatings
Unused subs: Hamilton, Walker, Robinson, McKay, McGhee.
Referee: John McKendrick.