The Jambos had passed tests of their title credentials with comfortable wins over Hibs, Aberdeen and Dundee United, but the question on everyone’s lips, was: Could they match their performances against the two Glasgow giants?
George Burley’s men answered that with an emphatic yes in this encounter at Tynecastle to pull 11 points clear of Rangers as they matched the club record start of 1914-15. The importance of this victory was not lost on the Hearts supporters who gave their team a rousing send off at full-time, after their first home triumph over the Ibrox men in seven years.
The win came courtesy of a Roman Bednar header from Paul Hartley’s corner in the game’s early stages, however the Czech striker was lost moments later to a knee injury after a heavy challenge from Marvin Andrews.
Bednar’s strike came after an opening spell in which Hearts tormented a shaky-looking Gers defence.
Brazilian midfielder Samuel Camazzola was handed his first start in maroon, while Rudi Skacel was back in the starting line-up after being rested for the midweek CIS Cup defeat by Livingston.
Dado Prso, who returned to the Rangers side along with Barry Ferguson and Fernando Ricksen after their cup win over Clyde, set up the first chance of the match. The Croatian striker found Olivier Bernard with a fine cross to the back post, but the full-back could not connect properly with a diving header.
The home side threatened when Skacel found Edgaras Jankauskas at the front post, however Gers keeper Ronald Waterreus was able block the Lithuanian’s header.
Former Hibee Ian Murray was forced to concede the corner from which the home side took the lead after just 14 minutes as Hartley’s flashing cross was met by Bednar, who had lost marker Andrews, to head home from six yards.
Rangers suffered a further blow when Nacho Novo had to go off injured, to be replaced by English striker Francis Jeffers.
Skacel gave counterpart Bednar the chance of a second goal with a fine cross to the back post, but the striker could only head over from a few yards out, before he went off injured and was replaced by Stephen Simmons.
Prso came close to equalising as Hearts adjusted to the change, Craig Gordon diving full stretch to turn the striker’s flicked header wide of the post.
Visiting boss Alex McLeish opted to shift to a back four as Rangers looked to draw level, with central defender Julien Rodriguez making way for midfielder Thomas Buffel.
The new formation applied pressure from the start of the second half, but the visitors were short of ideas to breach a sturdy defence.
They felt they should have had a penalty when a Jeffers half-volley hit Robbie Neilson’s arm on its way to goal.
But Hearts held on for a win that severely dented the Glasgow side’s chances of retaining the title and further boosted their own wave of optimism which would take some stopping.
Hearts: C Gordon, R Neilson, S Pressley, A Webster, P Fyssas (J McAllister, 32), E Jankauskas, P Hartley, S Camazzola (L Wallace, 85), R Skacel, R Bednar (S Simmons, 27), J Brellier. Subs not used:D Cesnauskis, C Elliot, S Banks, C Berra.
Rangers: R Waterreus, J Rodriguez (T Buffel, 36), M Andrews, S Kyrgiakos, F Ricksen, H Namouchi (F Nieto, 74), I Murray, B Ferguson, O Bernard, D Prso, N Novo (F Jeffers, 20). Subs not used:R McCormack, J Pierre-Fanfan, S Klos, A Lowing.