If this was a glimpse of what they can expect from the new Hearts, then the home fans certainly liked what they saw. A win over Rangers provided the full stop at the end of Robbie Neilson’s reign and a yet more comprehensive one could now act as the kickstart for the Ian Cathro era.
With St Johnstone ahead at Partick Thistle, and Hearts being held by Rangers after trading first-half goals, Cathro’s side were set to drop to fifth at one point.
But they blew Rangers away at the start of the second half, which was a mini-triumph in itself for Cathro, about whom many had remained sceptical.
The 30-year-old made a persuasive case for himself last night, seeming to re-energise his side with a half-time interval talk and then making intelligent use of substitutes early in the second half as Rangers were swept aside. Hearts scored three times within 15 second-half minutes after taking a third-minute lead.
The home side’s second wind could yet prove an ill one for Mark Warburton, whose much-criticised defence endured a torrid outing to match September’s 5-1 thrashing by Celtic.
At least then Rangers had the excuse of being reduced to ten men. If there was a mitigating factor here, it was the dreadfully bobbly pitch. But then Hearts, too, had to overcome the underfoot conditions, and were able to. Krystian
Nowak gave Hearts an early lead with a towering header while a Jamie Walker double and a tap-in from Don Cowie put the game beyond doubt for Hearts. Emerson Hyndman scored for the second successive game, drawing Rangers level ten minutes before half-time. But it proved a brief respite.
Hearts emerged after the interval fully recharged, feasting on the visitors’ deficiencies. There were plenty of them, including Andy Halliday lingering long enough on the ball to be robbed by Walker, who planted a 20-yard shot into the corner past Rangers goalkeeper Wes Foderingham to put the hosts ahead again.
That was in the 49th minute. By just after the hour, Rangers trailed by three, Cowie converting at the back post after good work from Bjorn Johnsen on the left after 54 minutes and Walker scoring the fourth nine minutes later, sweeping home the loose ball after Foderingham was unable to collect under pressure from Johnsen. The home fans bayed for a fifth. Although Greek defensive pair Alexandros Tziolis and Tasos Avlonitis came on in the second half for their debuts, Sam Nicholson, a winger, was also sent on by Cathro.
The intention seemed not solely to preserve an already handsome lead. With Esmael Goncalves enjoying an eye-catching debut in attack, Rangers could not afford to throw caution to the wind. They seemed to accept long before the end that containing Hearts to just four goals might be the best they could hope for on a chastening night.
The visitors had their chances in the first-half over and above Hyndman’s goal, scored after Jack Hamilton failed to gather Barrie McKay’s corner. The goalkeeper redeemed himself with an incredible reaction save from Hyndman just before half-time, with the score level.
The hosts were also rampant in the initial stages but, while they looked dangerous throughout the first 45 minutes, it proved impossible to maintain that momentum for an entire half. It was during this dynamic start that they took the lead, with Goncalves heavily involved in the build-up. After a tussle with Clint Hill, he won the initial free-kick on the touchline from which Cowie was able to release Andraz Struna. The Slovenian’s cross was met perfectly by Nowak, whose header arced over Foderingham. Only three minutes had elapsed but these were encouraging signs for the faithful, whose excitement at the capture of Goncalves was certainly justified by his powerful performance.
In the event, and despite three new signings on transfer deadline day, the Portuguese was the only debutant in the starting XI. But only five players remained from the 2-0 win over Rangers here in November, in Neilson’s last match. But there were, it seemed, plenty of similarities to that breathless affair.
Outside the welders continued to work into the night on the new roof truss over the old main stand. And sparks flew inside the stadium as well as Hearts took control, easing fears they might be too much changed to click into gear. But Johnsen relished playing off someone with such muscular attributes as Goncalves, while the Rangers back four seemed not quite so thrilled to be confronted by the physical manifestation of a wrecking ball.
Another foul on Goncalves from Hill earned Hearts a free-kick. Malaury Martin’s delivery almost sneaked in at the back post. But it wasn’t all Hearts, which should have served as a warning. Indeed, following Hearts’ energetic start Hamilton saved well from Waghorn and then reacted well to block another effort from the striker after Nowak came close to undoing his good work of earlier in the half with a much-too-short backpass. But home fans’ fears Hearts had exhausted themselves were not borne out, the second 45 minutes providing them with plenty reasons to mock those away supporters still inside the ground.
Something about being “beaten by a laptop”.