THE fans who had made it into the stands in plenty time for kick-off gave a joyous roar as the stadium announcer relayed the scorelines from the other Championship grounds.
Scorers: Falkirk - Biabi 70; Hearts - McHattie 26; El Hassnaoui 37
All of those nearest to Robbie Neilson’s side in the challenge for automatic promotion had stuttered, and three points for Hearts would see them extend their lead at the top of the table to a healthy six points ahead of next weekend’s big match against Rangers at Tynecastle.
Hearts had to play their part, but from the outset in this one-sided affair, that looked a formality. Falkirk offered little in attack, preferring to sit in and hope that their guests ran out of ideas or intent before they ran out of concentration. Having conceded four against the same side earlier in the campaign, on a day when Falkirk keeper Jamie MacDonald was still considered worthy of the man of the match award, it was a flawed plan and one which only held out until the 26th minute.
That was when the breakthrough Hearts had been threatening from the very start of the match finally came. The home side had been sitting deep, a moat of bodies swamping Hearts as they tried to get into the box and get a shot away. But while Hearts have struggled slightly in recent weeks, they still have too much creativity to be stalled in that way for an entire 90 minutes.
Prince Buaben fed the ball into Billy King and he feigned and darted his way along the edge of the box striking panic in the heart of the opposition, who were unsure whether to break ranks and go out and try to rob him of possession or simply keep passing him along the line. They succeeded in denying him the opening needed to fire off a shot of his own, but he made the most of the attacking intent of his left back Kevin McHattie who had advanced into a position where he could pick up the pass and send an angled drive into the roof of MacDonald’s goal.
As the away fans celebrated there were chants of “we shall not be moved” and on the evidence of days like this, that assertion cannot be considered too far-fetched. This is a team that has managed to pick up points when not at their best and a side that has rarely passed up the chance to capitalise on the slip ups made by others.
They could have doubled their lead soon after but while there was uproar in the Hearts ranks on and off the park when Jamie Walker tumbled to the ground in the Falkirk box, referee Calum Murray was not willing to give the winger the benefit of the doubt or the spot kick, simply running over to the scene of the incident to ensure there were no repercussions and signalling for play to continue.
But time was on Hearts’ side as Peter Houston’s men did nothing to suggest they could rise up and stage any kind of comeback and failed to get any kind of attempt on goal before the 39th minute.
By that time Hearts were already two up, courtesy of Walker’s pass in for Soufian El Hassnaoui. The striker, finishing clinically and offering his side the cushion that they would eventually need. That scenario seemed unimaginable at that time, but a double substitution just after the interval prompted a more adventurous approach from the home side.
With niggle and needle disrupting the flow and tempo of play, the introduction of both Alex Cooper and Botti Biabi offered Falkirk a bit more cut and thrust. The former forced the first real save of the evening from Neil Alexander, while the latter gave Falkirk the goal that led to a nervier and closer conclusion than most would have wagered.
The goal came in the 70th minute when Hearts couldn’t clear their lines and the substitute found the net from a difficult angle.
With the home side finally deciding to make a fist of things the anguish of the away fans betrayed their fear that they may not see things through. The break of the ball not going their way, the final pass was proving slack and even when Walker had broken through one-on-one with the keeper in the 66th minute, MacDonald was quickly off his line to narrow the angle and block, allowing his backtracking defenders the chance to clear.
It was Hearts who were having to defend deeper and hit on the break, which they did through substitute James Keatings, who created an opening with nine minutes to go, but fired wide.
At the other end, Joe Shaughnessy missed a glorious chance to equalise in the dying seconds when he blazed a shot over the bar from just a few yards out. A free-kick into penalty area had been nodded onto the edge of the six-yard box, leaving the exposed Alexander to puff out a huge sigh of relief at the glaring miss.
Falkirk: MacDonald , Shaughnessy, McCracken, Vaulks, Taiwo (Shepherd 83), Alston, Smith (Cooper 49), Sibbald, Grant (Biabi 49), Leahy, Loy. Unused subs: Bowman, Duffie, Grant, Maybury.
Hearts: Alexander, McHattie, Ozturk, Gomis, Walker, El Hassnaoui (Holt 75), King, Pallardo- Gonzalez, Bauben (Keatings 67), McKay, McGhee. Unused sub: Hamilton,Robinson, Nicholson, Buchanan, McKirdy.
Referee: C Murray. Attendance: 7,003.