IN comfortably disposing of Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park yesterday, Hearts leapfrogged them and Queen of the South to sit top of the Championship with a 100 per cent record.
Raith Rovers - 0
Hearts - 4
Keatings 13,28,58; Oliver 90
That they did so was largely down to a player who might not even have been playing had Osman Sow not got himself suspended. James Keatings duly notched his first, second and third goals for Hearts and the 22-year-old former Hamilton Academical has put himself firmly in the spotlight and possibly given manager Robbie Neilson a selection headache – not that he’ll mind.
The match started in bright sunshine but a brief monsoon arrived off the Forth after quarter of an hour, by which time Hearts had taken the lead. With 13 minutes gone, the speedy Billy King made the incisive run and his cross was cleverly back-heeled towards goal by Sam Nicholson. The ball looked to have gone over the line but was cleared only for Keatings to pounce as the home defence stood and admired his fast reactions, the striker slamming the ball low into the net.
Raith tried to get into the game, and Paul Watson should have done much better with Ryan Conroy’s cross rather than head it straight to Jack Hamilton in the visitors’ goal. On 20 minutes it was Hearts’ skipper Danny Wilson’s turn to head towards goal, his effort off King’s corner flashing past the post.
At this point the sheer pace of Keatings, King, Nicholson and Jason Holt was troubling their opponents no end, and it was no surprise when Hearts went two up.
The Raith defenders had appeared petrified in the truest sense of the word at the first goal, and their resemblance to standing stones was confirmed when King cut inside and let fly, only for the ball to break to Prince Buaben whose fierce shot rebounded off Cuthbert’s chest. So slow was the reaction of the home defence that Keatings had time to control the ball and move it on to his preferred left foot before smacking his shot past Cuthbert.
Further examples of how outpaced Raith were came just after the half-hour mark when Liam Fox and Martin Scott were both yellow-carded for hauling back Nicholson and King respectively.
Raith’s back four lived dangerously as they pressed upfield squarely, but for that tactic to work your midfield needs to get forward and challenge the opposition, or at least support the strike force. Former Hearts player Christian Nade was the man with the thankless task of playing up front.
Raith did rally early in the second half, and they had plenty of possession but could do little with it, though Morgaro Gomis had to pull back Nade at one point and was booked for the offence.
Hearts then “showed their class”, as Raith manager Grant Murray put it, with scintillating counter-attacking play. One 40-yard crossfield burst by Nicholson was ended with a crude tackle by Ross Perry, and from almost 25 yards out, Keatings despatched a superb curling free-kick high past Cuthbert.
To their credit, Raith kept trying and their best chances also came from free-kicks, Jack Hamilton saving quite brilliantly from Ryan Conroy after 70 minutes, the goalkeeper diving high to his left to tip the ball over.
Hearts’ captain Danny Wilson was booked for a foul on Nade after 80 minutes, and substitute Lewis Vaughan’s attempt from the subsequent free-kick was again well saved by Hamilton.
In the 83rd minute the Hearts contingent rose as one to acclaim their new hero as Keatings made way for Alistair Roy. The match had long been over as a contest, but the best laugh was still to come as the match sponsors gave their man of the match award to Christian Nade – the Hearts fans responded with a spontaneous chorus of “one Christian Nade”.
It remained only for the two substitutes, Roy and Gary Oliver to combine for the fourth, the former’s run and shot rebounding for the latter to crack home a smashing low shot from 20 yards in the final minute.
Manager Neilson refused to get ahead of himself: “If we get ten games in and have a 100 per cent record then we’ll take that.”
Even at this stage, Hearts look very good value for the play-off chance for promotion, or better.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, Watson, Perry, McKeown, Anderson, Fox (Vaughan 71), Scott, Conroy, Nade, Stewart (Moon 65).
Hearts: Hamilton, McGhee, Ozturk, Wilson, McHattie, Gomis (Oliver 71), Buaben (Robinson 56), King, Holt, Nicholson, Keatings (Roy 83).
Referee: C Charleston. Attendance: 6,105.