Hearts’ 2922 jubilant travelling supporters bounded out of Fir Park on Saturday singing “we shall not be moved” as they savoured the most significant victory yet of what is threatening to become a special season for Craig Levein’s team.
With Celtic’s unexpected slip-up against St Mirren on Friday paving the way for them to go five points clear at the top of the Premiership, this was a test of Hearts’ mettle. Could they handle the challenge of trying to maintain a 100 per cent winning start in the league at a ground where they had lost both times last term and against a Motherwell side buoyed by a three-game unbeaten run, including a spirited 3-3 draw with Rangers in their last home game? Indeed they could.
From the moment they overcame a testing opening 28 minutes to take the lead through Steven Naismith’s eighth club goal of the season, Hearts rarely looked like leaving Lanarkshire with anything other than three points. They came under pressure at times, but coped superbly with it and still threatened to add to their lead with some impressive counter-attacks which were just lacking a clinical finish.
They now find themselves cast as the first team outwith Celtic to command a five-point advantage at the summit of the Scottish Premiership since Aberdeen did likewise after a 3-1 win at Tynecastle in September 2015. The Dons proceeded to take only one point from their next five games and Celtic duly took control. Hearts, with strength in depth in all areas and a couple of winnable home games against Livingston and St Johnstone next up, look equipped to stick around the top for a while longer.
No-one is quite ready to declare them genuine title contenders at this point. There are, after all, still 33 matches to go, while the weight of recent history counts against them, with 33 years having elapsed since anyone outwith Celtic or Rangers last won the Scottish title. The traditional Glasgow heavyweights still have significantly greater resources than Hearts, but the Tynecastle side are currently getting more bang for their buck, with a strong collective and a positive vibe allowing them to outperform two teams with more illustrious names and individual talent. How long this run – eight wins in a row in all competitions – can continue remains to be seen, but supporters are certainly not being urged to dampen their enthusiasm. And why should they when an already strong squad is set to be bolstered by the addition of Sean Clare, David Vanecek and Christophe Berra in the weeks and months ahead?
“Anything is possible in football,” said on-loan Burnley defender Jimmy Dunne, who was immense alongside John Souttar as Hearts restricted Motherwell to few clear chances.
“This league has changed over the last few seasons and it looks a lot more open than it used to. With the start we’ve had, we have put any doubters to the side and we look a real threat at the top of the table. Coming to Hearts, I saw an amazing opportunity considering how open the league is. It is open, we have a chance and we are just trying to build something.”
When asked if it was possible for Hearts to win the league, Dunne said: “I haven’t thought about winning the league as I have only played three games. All I am thinking of is getting a clean sheet in the next game and building on our performance.
“At the same time, if we keep winning then anything is possible. Fans always dream and without that, we’d get nowhere. We want the fans to believe in us. The support they showed at Fir Park was immense. I’ve never seen anything like it. We need that backing and with the support, and the effort we are putting in, I feel like we can go a long way.”
Dunne has recent experience of being part of a remarkable footballing story after helping Accrington Stanley win promotion from England’s League Two for the first time in their history while on loan there last season. “Accrington’s promotion was proof that everything is possible,” said the 20-year-old. “It was a lesser story than Leicester City winning the Premier League but we came from nowhere. Nobody thought we would get promoted but we fought in every way we could to get there, and the hard work paid off.
“I sense something special in this dressing-room. There is a great atmosphere and sense of belief. We have real charismatic leaders. There is a mixture of young players and older pros, which is vital. There are no massive egos. We have a bunch of hard-working, honest lads.”
This strong team ethic has taken Hearts to a level nobody could have predicted when they ended last season in sixth place after a 1-0 defeat at Kilmarnock a mere four months ago. The transformation in the intervening period has been remarkable.