Scoring in a 4-0 win over Celtic is the perfect way for Kyle Lafferty to thank Hearts for their support through his gambling addiction. It was a momentous day at Tynecastle Park as the Glasgow club’s record 69-game unbeaten run shuddered to a halt, and Lafferty was just one of several sidenotes.
When Hearts fans are doing a mock huddle celebrating their team’s dominance, you know something spectacular is occurring. The energy expended on the field from those in maroon was replicated in the stands during the second half as supporters bounced around joyously. They knew goals from 16-year-old Harry Cochrane and Lafferty, plus two from the excellent David Milinkovic, had obliterated Celtic’s undefeated status under Brendan Rodgers.
Lafferty was a pivotal figure in the success. Rodgers admitted afterwards that his centre-backs, Jozo Simunovic and Dedryck Boyata, couldn’t cope with the Northern Irishman’s physicality. It was the first time since April 1972 that Hearts had scored four against Celtic, and the 4-0 scoreline was their biggest league victory in this fixture since 1895.
This was just as much a personal triumph for Lafferty, though. “I know if I’m on top of my game I’ll play any defender off the park. It’s just getting that consistency. This season has probably been my most consistent,” he said. “I’m at a good club that’s shown me respect and helped me through tough times in my personal life. To get a goal and three points against Celtic is a great way to thank them.
“Obviously I’ve come out about my gambling. I’ve been hiding it for ten to 12 years. My wife, Vanessa, has been the 110 per cent behind me and I’m at a club which has even shocked me how much they’re behind me. Ann Budge, the owner, Austin MacPhee [Hearts’ assistant coach] and the gaffer [Craig Levein] have been superb. I was a bit afraid to come out in case it affected my relationships with them. They’ve been behind me and it’s made it a lot easier. I know I’m in the right place.”
The former Rangers striker scored Hearts’ second goal ten minutes before the interval to add to Cochrane’s first in senior football. The teenager controlled Don Cowie’s low ball and lashed it beyond the Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon from 20 yards. Lafferty then took Milinkovic’s pass and strode forward before a precise finish in off Gordon’s right-hand post.
Milinkovic rounded off an impassioned display with his first two goals for the Edinburgh club after the break. The first came slightly fortuitously when Simunovic badly misjudged Connor Randall’s long ball forward, allowing the winger to round Gordon and score. The Scotland goalkeeper then fouled Ross Callachan inside the area and Milinkovic confidently dispatched the resultant penalty low into the net to round off the thumping.
The result stretches Hearts’ unbeaten run to six matches, but no-one could have foreseen this against a previously all-conquering Celtic side. “I’m speechless, to be honest,” admitted Lafferty. “I’ve always said everything will click and we’ll gel together and we’ll smash a team. If somebody had said it would be Celtic I’d probably have laughed in their face but that says a lot about the performance.
“I’m lucky enough to have been on the winning side against Celtic a few times but this is probably up there with the best. To be the team to stop them finishing their 70th game unbeaten in a row is one of the best feelings in the world.
“When we come up against teams lower that us in the league then we need to keep that performance up. That’s where we’re struggling at the minute. We’re playing Celtic off the park, we played Rangers off the park for 45 minutes, but when we come up against teams we should be beating, we are struggling. Once we beat the lower teams in the league, we will have a good season. Beating Celtic is one of the best results the lads will be involved in.
“We’ve worked very hard this week. We watched clips of Celtic, clips of Anderlecht and how they pressed against Celtic and kept them on the back foot. We’ve basically worked on putting them under pressure and we did that from the first minute to the 94th. They struggled when we were in their faces. If you show Celtic respect, the result could be 4-0 to them. We believed in ourselves and the manager believed in the way he set up the team.” Hearts’ hustling tactics certainly unsettled the visitors as they employed high pressing at every opportunity. Lafferty unsettling Simunovic and Boyata was just one example. “The first time we played Celtic this season, I didn’t really fancy them as two centre-halves. Obviously they are great centre-halves but I knew when you put them under pressure there are mistakes in them. I’ve done that and got a goal. Other players got chances as well. I’m happy with my performance but every player was brilliant.
“I believed inside the first five or ten mintutes that they [Celtic] weren’t up for them game. The gaffer said before the game we can be the team to stop Celtic and we took that on to the pitch.”
Cochrane’s maturity was clear for all to see against the wily Celtic captain Scott Brown, earning him a man-of-the-match award from sponsors. “I’ve just watched Harry collecting a bottle of champagne but he’s too young to drink it. He could barely speak because he’s shocked,” said Lafferty.
“That’s Harry. He doesn’t say a lot. When he plays for the younger age groups you see he’s 16. When he plays for the first team, he just steps up five or six years. He’s a brilliant young player. I spoke to him before the game and said: ‘These are the games where you make a name for yourself.’ What a way to do it.
“He’s probably one of the best young players I’ve seen. When I came to Hearts, he was training. He’s 16 and he’s light but he works and he’s been in the gym. To be honest, I think he forgot to put the weights on the bars but he’s going to develop. If Hearts can keep hold of him for a while they’ll do well.”
Rodgers took his first domestic defeat as Celtic manager with dignity but highlighted the astonishing achievement of his own players. “Congratulations to Hearts, the were the better team on the day. We failed to cope with their style, we didn’t defend well enough and made too many mistakes. Hearts won the game deservedly and we got what we deserved,” he said.
“My feeling is of pride for our players. That’s the run come to an end after 69 games. It’s a real historical achievement. We conceded poor goals today and the mistakes cost us. It’s the first domestic game we haven’t scored in and that was the story. The pitch wasn’t great so Hearts are playing a direct game, and we failed to cope with Lafferty in the first period. He gave our two centre-halves problems. Fundamentally, you have to deal with that.
“A defeat was always going to happen. It’s never nice when it does but what the players have done is absolutely amazing. We’re a bigger target now because of what we’ve done. I think the supporters recognise what the team has given over the last 18 months. Give Hearts credit, the young boy Cochrane at 16 has a very good temperament for a young player. They exploited our weakness.
“The reality of it is that this was a history-breaking run. Going 69 games undefeated at any level is a remarkable achievement. The players will go down in history. I’m not sure it will be done again. Certainly in our lifetimes it won’t be done and they can take huge pride from that.”