AGAINST a backdrop of insurrection and hostility, Hearts again showed why they do not want a season once riven with difficulties to end.
Scorers: Hearts - Stevenson (11, 24, 45), King (56), Paterson (60)
An ugly mood began to develop almost from kick-off. Not so long ago, with Hearts fans forced to endure a seemingly endless cycle of defeats while their team languished at the bottom of the league, it might have been expected that they would be the ones responsible for this discord.
But this is the new Hearts, a team that is unrecognisable from the slightly ragged bunch of youngsters Gary Locke was asked to cobble together nine months ago. Even Locke’s own bearing has changed since these days. You could almost hear him purr with satisfaction as his troops secured the points with a devastating opening-half display. “Lockie, Lockie, give us a wave,” he was urged by fans, many of whom were questioning his qualifications back in the bleak mid-season.
This was a very uncomfortable return visit to Tynecastle for Allan Johnston, the former Hearts player who himself once scored a memorable hat-trick while in maroon, versus Rangers. Johnston had to watch Ryan Stevenson grab the match ball at the end having heard a very brutal assessment of his managerial worth from the furious Kilmarnock supporters. “You don’t know what you are doing,” they jeered, before then
indulging in some gallows humour by singing: “We’re going down with the Jambos!”
Locke, in contrast, was hailed by the home supporters, as was Kilmarnock striker Kris Boyd, who has been linked with a move to Hearts this summer. He was applauded from the park when he was substituted after 69 minutes. But do Hearts need him? Not with Stevenson in this kind of form.
This is Hearts’ fifth victory in six games, and – while now academic given that they are already relegated – it would have put them above not only Kilmarnock, but also Hibs, Partick Thistle and Ross County were it not for the club’s 15-point deduction for going into administration. It is also the first time they have scored five times in one game since a certain Scottish Cup final. Granted, it may be easier for his side to express themselves with all pressure off them but, given their straitened circumstances and limited squad numbers, Locke has done a remarkable job.
It was all too much for the Kilmarnock supporters, who were the ones complaining in vociferous fashion as they watched Stevenson, hardly the most popular player with them at the best of times given his Ayr United connections, hunt a hat-trick before the interval. He duly secured it on the stroke of half-time as Hearts made swift work of the pitifully poor challenge offered by Kilmarnock. The home side scored a further two times in the second half.
The fact the visitors were the ones with the most to play for made it all the more bemusing. The Rugby Park side knew that a victory would lift them above Hibs into eighth place but this was made to seem a hopeless ambition after only 24 minutes, by which time Stevenson had scored his first two goals.
He started the ball rolling after only 11 minutes, although even by this early stage he had already tested Craig
Samson with a shot on the turn. He wasn’t to be denied and neither was he prepared to settle for just one goal. His first came from a free kick following a foul on Sam Nicholson by Ross Barbour. Stevenson drove the set-piece through the wall and saw his shot gain a couple of deflections before flying past Samson into the net. His second arrived 13 minutes later with a shot from just inside the box, after a half-clearance out of the Kilmarnock defence.
“One Eremenko,” the Kilmarnock fans chanted when the popular – but benched – Alexei Eremenko chose to warm up, shortly after his side had conceded this second goal. There was insurrection in the air almost from the off. An “AJ OUT” banner was unfurled each time Kilmarnock conceded – which was often. “This is embarrassing,” the away fans chanted at a point in the game when they probably thought it could not get any more embarrassing. It did.
Stevenson scored his third just before half-time when showing more determination than any Kilmarnock defender to get on the end of a Billy King cross. The interval offered Kilmarnock some temporary shelter but there was little relief to come in the second half. It is fair to say the away fans were more than a little surprised when the same team came out – it took another ten minutes for Johnston to make a change, with Eremenko finally making an appearance. The game was already done, however.
Stevenson nearly scored a fourth after 53 minutes, when he prodded a shot against the far post after a Nicholson cutback. The irrepressible Stevenson set up King a minute later, and the 19-year-old carried on the theme of the afternoon by sweeping a well-hit shot past Samson, who must have despaired at the lack of protection from his defenders.
Stevenson – who else? – had a hand in the fifth and last Hearts goal, crossing for Callum Paterson to knock in his tenth goal of the season. There were still 30 minutes left, more than enough time for Johnston to contemplate how on earth a team who eased to a 4-0 victory at the same venue on Boxing Day – and had won all three previous meetings of the sides this season – could be complicit in such a dramatic, and possibly significant, turnaround in fortunes.