Liam Boyce’s goal early in the second half could prove invaluable in the Edinburgh club's pursuit of continental football next summer. In the context of a game in which Hearts had taken a mauling until that point, they managed to force themselves ahead and exercised a vice-like grip on their advantage until the final whistle sounded.
Livingston’s superb first-half display should have seen them comfortably ahead but Hearts’ defiant second-half response warmed their sizeable collection of fans on a chilly December afternoon. And although Boyce’s goal decided this affair, Livingston might have been out of sight but for a certain Craig Gordon.
The visiting goalkeeper produced a triple save in the first half which left everyone inside the Tony Macaroni Arena open-mouthed at such brilliance.
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In denying Andrew Shinnie, Jason Holt and Alan Forrest in the space of a few seconds – Craig Sibbald struck a post in between – Gordon produced possibly his best moment of goalkeeping of an already fantastic season. It was as critical to the final outcome as Boyce’s 11th goal on his 18th appearance of the campaign.
If the Northern Irishman is something of an outfield talisman, Gordon’s contribution in goal makes him a priceless commodity in this Hearts team.
As thousands of shopping bags rustled with Christmas presents just a throw-in away at the Almondvale Shopping Centre, thousands of maroon-clad fans arrived at the Tony Macaroni Arena seeking an early festive gift of three points for their side. Around 4,000, actually.
The ramifications of Thursday night’s defeat at Celtic Park may well continue for some time with Police Scotland continuing to investigate missiles thrown at Barrie McKay by home supporters. In a football context, Hearts needed to move on with the pursuit of a high-ranking finish in their first season back in the Premiership.
They looked decidedly tired in the first half after their midweek endeavours. Boyce returned to the starting line-up at centre-forward as manager Robbie Neilson reverted to a 3-4-3 formation. Livingston began with Shinnie leading their attack hoping to halt a run of five games without victory.
This was the West Lothian club’s third match in a punishing schedule of nine games in 35 days. The winter sunshine in the area made for a pleasant pre-match setting but, at this time of year, points are all that matters. David Martindale’s players were ready to fight for them.
Livingston’s tenacious approach was evident from kick-off as they rushed around snapping at the ankles of opponents. Early goal attempts by winger Forrest and midfielder Stephane Omeonga signalled an intent to take the game to Hearts.
The visitors lost their right wing-back, Michael Smith, on 16 minutes because of a back injury. Livingston sensed opportunities to strike and it required a quite stupefying triple save from Gordon, plus extra aid from the goalframe, to thwart them on 25 minutes.
Firstly the Scotland No.1 blocked Shinnie’s attempt in a one-versus-one, and from the rebound Sibbald lashed the ball off the post from 20 yards. Livi instantly collected the loose ball again and worked it to Holt for another netbound shot which Gordon stretched fully to push onto the same upright.
From that rebound, Forrest’s effort from an acute angle was clawed away by the goalkeeper. It was a quite breathtaking few seconds of action. The bombardment didn’t let up, either, resulting in loud jeering from Hearts supporters at the paucity of their team.
They booed again at the half-time whistle just to reiterate their disgust after an especially poor 45 minutes. Peter Haring had replaced Ben Woodburn and the shape changed to 4-2-3-1, bringing some order to a dreadful first period.
Livingston still left the pitch wondering why they weren’t ahead by a couple of goals. That frustration would only have increased when Hearts scored four minutes after the restart.
Their first properly intense attack of the game saw John Souttar feed Barrie McKay in the No.10 role. His first-time cushioned pass was perfect for Boyce to control and slot beyond Max Stryjek in the Livingston goal.
A combination of surprise and joy led to some travelling fans spilling over pitchside in the corner where Boyce celebrated. They roared again ten minutes later when McKay hit the net, only for an offside flag to intervene. Hearts were already significantly improved thanks in no small part to Neilson’s change of formation.
Livingston recovered with Forrest and substitute Cristian Montano firing a couple of shots at Gordon. Then Boyce sent a superb through ball to Aaron McEneff in behind the home defence, only for the midfielder to shoot over the crossbar. McKay side-footed another effort wide from Alex Cochrane’s square pass moments later.
Substitute Armand Gnanduillet might have added a second goal for Hearts after replacing Boyce. One left-foot strike landed wide of target and then, after rounding Stryjek in stoppage-time, the Frenchman could only hit the side netting with his other foot from a tight angle.
The final whistle brought notable relief for Hearts which manifested itself in chants of “Scotland’s No.1” from the visiting support.
Livingston (4-2-3-1): Stryjek; Devlin, Fitztwater, Parkes, Penrice; Holt, McMillan (Montano 63); Sibbald (Anderson 63), Omeonga (Panayiotou 67), Forrest; Shinnie.
Hearts (3-4-3): Gordon; Souttar, Halkett, Kingsley; M Smith (Moore 16), McEneff, Devlin, Cochrane; McKay, Boyce (Gnanduillet 80), Woodburn (Haring 29).
Referee: Kevin Clancy.