IT WAS an ugly and, truth be told, a fortunate win for Hearts, but looking down from the summit of the Championship with the benefit of a nine-point advantage on the chasing pack it must have felt as good as any victory they have racked up so far this season.
Scorer: Hearts - Eckersley 86
Alloa had already put Hibs to the sword and given Rangers a right scare at the Indodrill Stadium and they were three minutes away from holding the league leaders to a draw when the roof fell in, courtesy of freakish goal from a free kick from Hearts left-back Adam Eckersley.
The old adage about winning when you’re not playing at your best being a mark of prospective champions came to mind even at this relatively early stage of the campaign. There haven’t been too many occasions where Robbie Neilson’s side have struggled to impose themselves and the fact that they still came though this trying encounter points to a core of resilience to complement their youthful zest.
“We’ve been winning games, two, three or four-nil and that breeds confidence”, reflected Neilson, “but a game like today also breeds confidence, because there will be other times this season where it’s 0-0 at 85 minutes and we’ll now have this belief that we can go and do it again.
“We were down to ten men with Danny Wilson off the pitch with an injury and we still had the drive and belief to go on and win it – it’s fantastic”.
If Neilson was thoroughly contented, his opposite number Barry Smith could not have been more crestfallen at the sting in the tail that this match wrought upon his side’s brave endeavours. “In my opinion we deserved so much more out of that game,” he said. “I don’t think Hearts created much and we’ve created the better chances by far. I set the team out to frustrate them and we did that. We’re a part-time team, training twice a week, playing a full-time side – Robbie’s got them in for extra sessions – yet could you tell the difference today?”
Prior to this game, much of the focus had been on the perceived quality of the Indodrill Stadium’s synthetic playing surface. Yet while it may have been a factor in Hearts lacking their usual incisiveness and fluency, this should not be allowed to detract from what was an outstanding effort from Smith’s men. Full of alacrity and purpose, they hustled the league leaders out of their stride while stringing together some slick and intelligent forward raids. Kevin Cawley was afforded a couple of decent glimpses of goal in a lively opening quarter of an hour from the hosts but wildly wayward finishing let him down.
The visitors only had a short burst of pressure around the mid-way point of a lacklustre first half to offer any source of concern to Craig McDowall in the Alloa goal. A brace of free-kicks on the edge of the box were wastefully skied by Alim Ozturk and Billy King, but Jamie Walker was unfortunate to see a low shot from 20 yards crash off the post with McDowall well beaten.
At the other end, Neil Alexander had to move smartly to pluck the ball off the toes of Cawley after he had been sent clear by a precision pass from Graeme Holmes as half time approached.
Any sense that Alloa had given up on the notion of adding yet another impressive scalp to their name was briskly dispelled after the break as Greig Spence tore down the right flank and sent over a teasing cross which just eluded his on-rushing colleagues. The visitors showed a much greater sense of urgency and this yielded them more territorial dominance. The chances were few and far between for Neilson’s men, however, with Osman Sow blazing one of the best of them off target after a neat lay-off by King. Prince Baubin was next up to send a shot wide while Callum Paterson glided a far-post header the wrong side of the upright when looking well placed to score.
Somehow the part-timers found yet another wind and Cawley was clutching his head in his hands as he failed to connect with a Ryan McCord volley with the goal at his mercy. He was soon to be joined in angst by his colleagues as the seconds counted down to the final whistle. Eckersley’s free kick from outside the box was struck low but fiercely but it bobbled its way past McDowall thanks to a ruck of players obscuring his view.
Alloa: McDowall, Doyle, Gordon, Benedictus, Docherty, Cawley, Simmons, McCord, Holmes, Buchanan, Spence (Fearns 54). Subs not used: Tiffoney, Meggatt, Marr, Hetherington, Asghar, Couser. Booked: Doyle, Gordon, Simmons.
Hearts: Alexander, McGhee (Paterson 51), Ozturk, Wilson, Eckersley, King, Gomis, Buaben, Walker (El Hassanoui 73), Sow, Carrick (Nicholson 45). Subs not used: McHattie, Holt, Pallardo, Hamilton. Booked: King.
Ref: C Murray