Pumping Hearts and Champions League dreams as Tynecastle roars behind a transformed team
Fans filtering out of Tynecastle on Saturday at least tried to maintain perspective. “Ah'm no' gettin' carried away, but who do we want in our Champions League group?” queried one.
The joviality summed up a support base whose mood is transformed as much as their team since last season. They've gone from pedestrian and functional Championship winners to swaggering Premiership challengers in just a few months.
“The best Hearts side since the George Burley days,” declared another Jambo on social media during a weekend when Robbie Neilson’s side surged top of the league – albeit for 24 hours.
Supporters put through the mill in recent years by poor management, some sub-standard signings and bureaucratic buffonery at the top of Scottish football deserve to rejoice for a while. Beating Motherwell 2-0 reinforced notions that newly-promoted Hearts can keep pace at the summit.
Unbeaten in eight Premiership matches, an intense playing style is shunting into top gear driven by the central midfield partnership of Cameron Devlin and Beni Baningime. Motherwell couldn’t match them, nor others like the outstanding Michael Smith, Barrie McKay, Stephen Kingsley or Taylor Moore.
Liam Boyce scored his 24th goal in 43 Hearts appearances since last August from the penalty spot on four minutes. Kingsley followed up with another exquisite free-kick to double the advantage 18 minutes later. Boyce even had a second penalty saved by Motherwell goalkeeper Liam Kelly after the interval.
Yes, fans are entitled to dream but players can’t afford to with Rangers at Ibrox looming in two weeks. “We’re near the top of the table in a tough league. It’s so good going into the international break,” said Devlin.
“The gaffer spoke to us as a group about how we we’ve been doing. It doesn’t matter who plays or doesn't play, we are a group. There’s no point resting on that. We are only eight games into the season so there’s no point getting ahead of ourselves.
“We have to knuckle down because teams will want to come after us now. We have a couple of days off then we go to Ibrox, which might be the biggest challenge so far. I think that will be a pretty cool experience.
“It’s something I know I’m looking forward to. I’ve never experienced it before and it will be the biggest crowd I’ve played in front of. We’re up near the top of the league for a reason, we’ll go there with confidence and a gameplan.”
Devlin won Saturday’s second penalty and was then embroiled in a verbal exchange with his impeder, Callum Slattery. “Yeah, I’ve got to shut my mouth I think,” laughed the Australian. “He was giving it to me so I’m not just going to stand there. He’s a good lad and we spoke after the game. It’s just my nature.”
If his bond with Baningime looks natural, that’s because it is. “Although we haven’t spent a lot of time together, we understand each other’s game. We bounce off each other and don’t have to communicate too much.”
Hearts (3-4-3): Gordon; Moore, Halkett (Halliday 55), Kingsley; M Smith, Baningime, Devlin, Cochrane; McKay (Haring 80), Boyce, Woodburn (Mackay-Steven 69).
Motherwell (4-3-3): Kelly; O’Donnell, Mugabi, Ojala, McGinley; Grimshaw (Amaluzor 75), Slattery, O’Hara; Woolery, Watt, Van Veen (Shields 82).
Referee: David Munro.