UNBEATABLE for the past 20 league games, Hearts manager Robbie Neilson was not one of those who bought into the theory that his men could extend that run throughout the entire Championship campaign.
Hearts - 2
Zeefuik 1; Keatings 72
Falkirk - 3
Baird 32 pen; Loy 52; Sibbald 80
He was always of the belief that the day would come when he would need to walk into the dressing room after a match and have to remind his players that all that had been lost was three points and that the title remained theirs for the taking. He even knew what he would say.
His team having taken the lead after just one minute, it wasn’t looking likely that he would have to dust down that pep talk at Tynecastle yesterday. Only Celtic, in the Scottish Cup, have scored more than one goal against them in a home game this term and so the odds of Falkirk coming back and doing enough to eclipse them were not good. But Falkirk are a side with some momentum of their own. They came into the game having lost just one of their last nine and given the character, confidence and composure on display it was clear that they had the desire to improve.
“It was a cracking game and I’m bursting with pride for my players because they put a lot into that match,” said Falkirk manager Peter Houston, who saw his side move into one of the play-off places, leapfrogging Queen of the South.
“I think we deserved our victory. I think we upset their rhythm and stopped their good players playing and our boys turned up and did well. We learned from the last time when we sat off them at the Falkirk Stadium in the first half. We felt we’re at our best when we have two up front and we had guys going beyond.”
In their two previous head-to-heads, Hearts had come away 4-1 and 2-1 winners but Falkirk refused to be idle observers this time around.
But the final outcome was not one the majority of people packed into Tynecastle would have predicted during that opening period.
With just 83 seconds gone, Osman Sow linked up effortlessly with his fellow striker Genero Zeefuik down the left and, in his home debut, Zeefuik slotted the ball into Jamie MacDonald’s net.
The home fans assumed that was that. Neilson was hopeful it was. Houston prayed it wasn’t, admitting afterwards that he had been concerned.
“Yeah, we were here earlier in the season when they went on to score four, three in the first half. That’s a good side, two big guys up front. I’ve got to give credit to our centre backs, I think they handled Sow and Zeefuik very well.”
In the end, they handled Hearts’ attacking threat better than their counterparts could when it came to Falkirk’s foraging. In Craig Sibbald and Blair Alston they offered options and support to the determined front line of John Baird and Rory Loy.
“I thought we started the game well. I was hopeful that after we got the goal and the two strikers linked up well and got the goal that we would move on from there and see the game out but credit to Falkirk, I thought they were fantastic and really made things difficult. They caused us problems with their two wide players coming inside and it took us a while to get a handle on it. We were the slightly better side, I thought, but we didn’t do enough to win the game but that’s football. I’m big enough to realise that we are not going to go through the whole season undefeated. It has been a fantastic bit of form we have been on and if we had lost the first game of the season and we were sitting here after 19 games undefeated then we would be saying we are doing fantastically well.
“You always lose games and it is how you react to your defeat. The guys are devastated but it’s my job to try to keep them calm and level and use it as a catalyst to work doubly hard.”
Having taken that early lead, they let Falkirk back into it in the 32nd minute when Jordan McGhee, in for the suspended Alim Ozturk, brought down Loy. Baird converted the spot kick.
Seven minutes into the second half Loy gave the guests the lead, scoring a beautiful goal, turning inside then sending the ball into the postage stamp corner of Neil Alexander’s net.
But the Gorgie crowd were behind their men, aware that they had battled back before, and substitute James Keatings finally benefitted from the swell of pressure, equalising in the 72nd minute.
An absorbing, high quality contest, full of energy and desire, there were few who believed that would be the end of the scoring, though, the only unknown was who would produce the winner.
In the end it was Sibbald and it was a goal worthy of winning any game, taking in defenders and finding space before unleashing his effort into the bottom left-hand corner.
That was in the 80th minute and although Hearts tried to find way to level, on the day, they met a team who matched their guts as well as their gusto to end that unbeaten run and leave the home fans to trail off the park with head bowed.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, McGhee, Wilson, Eckersley, Walker, Buaben, Gomis (Holt 80), Nicholson, Sow (Keatings 64), Zeefuik. Unused subs: Hamilton, Pallardo, Oliver, Carrick, McKayame.
Falkirk: MacDonald, Duffie, Vaulks, Grant, Leahy, Alston, Taiwo (Smith 80), Kerr, Sibbald, Baird (Dick 85), Loy (Biabi 89). Unsed subs: Bowman, Maybury, Cooper, Morgan.
Referee: D Robertson. Attendance: 16,206