THERE once existed a lazy narrative regarding the Scottish Championship title race which promised a Rangers resurgence once the Hearts squad came up against the obstacle of injuries and suspensions.
Scorers: Livingston - Sives 52, Kyle Jacobs 90; Hearts - Zeefuik 5, Anderson 82, Walker 84
What the ill-advised prediction failed to take into account was that Robbie Neilson’s side have constantly battled against player absences this campaign and yet have still come through almost every match with three points. This proved to be the case once again at Almondvale yesterday.
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Forced into making three changes – Prince Buaben was suspended while Osman Sow and Adam Eckersley missed out through injury – Hearts put in an understandably below par performance but still prevailed.
In fact, Hearts have not once fielded the same starting XI in consecutive matches all season. They’ve used 28 players in the league and handed out an astounding 16 club debuts. It’s a testament to the squad Robbie Neilson and Craig Levein have assembled that every new recruit has made a telling contribution.
The latest of these was debutant Kenny Anderson. The visitors were heading for a frustrating draw before the Dutchman – whose late grandfather grew up supporting Hearts – glanced home a cross for a dream beginning to his career back in his father’s homeland.
“You always dream of making such importance for the team on your debut and I was really pleased to get the goal,” beamed Anderson after the match.
“I know my grandad would have been proud. When I scored I looked up [at the heavens]. He would have been cheering.”
Despite Hearts scoring within five minutes it was the hosts who started the game the brighter with the opener coming on the counter attack. Jamie Walker released Genero Zeefuik down the left and the striker squared up the covering Declan Gallagher before stepping inside the defender and firing into the far corner.
Instead of building on their advantage, Hearts found it increasingly difficult to get into their rhythm as Livingston’s pressing caused a lot of problems. The hosts also made a number of robust challenges including Jason Talbot’s high kick which left Sam Nicholson needing stitches in his face.
As the half wore on the hosts grew into the ascendancy and they were level within seven minutes of the restart.
A long throw from the right was allowed to travel all the way to Craig Sives at the back post. There was a brief pause as the defender couldn’t believe his luck that the ball had arrived at his feet, before composing himself to level the score. Notably, the lifelong Hearts supporter refused to celebrate against his former club.
The visitors were then fortunate not to go 2-1 down when Ibra Sekajja failed to control a Kyle Jacobs through ball. Had the striker’s touch been sharper he would have been clean through on the keeper.
“Undoubtedly it was a big moment,” reflected Livingston boss Mark Burchill. “I was looking at the Hearts fans getting on the players’ backs, looking at the Hearts players arguing with each other. We just needed to be a bit more clinical around the final third.”
A further testament to Hearts’ strength in depth was their ability to bring this season’s top assist maker, Billy King, off the bench. The midfielder was soon at it again as he created Anderson’s goal with a curling cross into the penalty area which allowed his fellow substitute to head home.
Just over a minute later King played in Jamie Walker on the run and the attacker emphatically finished into the far bottom corner.
The goal proved crucial as Brad McKay hauled down Myles Hippolyte late into stoppage time and referee Brian Colvin pointed to the spot, before ordering off the Hearts defender. Kyle Jacobs slotted home the spot-kick but it was the last kick of the game.