THE Championship title is now Hearts’ to lose, rival manager Alan Subbs conceded after yesterday’s 1-1 derby draw at Tynecastle.
Last weekend, it was Rangers who admitted that they were all but playing for second place and, yesterday, after his side failed to put a dent in the 19-point lead enjoyed by their cross-city foes, Stubbs, right, did the same. Asked if he would concede the title, he replied: “I would like to be in Robbie [Neilson]’s position and if I was I would be confident of winning the league.”
That may be construed as mind games if the gap between the Tynecastle team and those chasing them was not so hefty. It might even pile some pressure on Hearts, were it not for the fact that yesterday’s draw represented only the third time they had dropped points on league duty all season, in a 19-game unbeaten run which has seen them score 47 goals and concede only nine.
But as the Gorgie side dug out another result, they simply rammed home their Championship credentials. They are 13 points clear with more than half of the season gone. Even the Hibs goalscorer, Jason Cummings, a former Hearts player who admits that he harbours a grudge after he was released following a series of injuries, is far from bullish about the chances of anyone pegging back Robbie Neilson’s side.
“It’s quite a big gap, so I’m not too sure about that, but if we get into the play-offs, we have every chance of getting back up, so we’ll just keep plugging away.”
While he knows he cannot control what those outwith the dressing room believe, the last thing the Hearts manager will allow is anyone within those walls to start believing the hard work is done. He admitted it had been far from his team’s best performance. With the city bragging rights at stake, he confessed that the team had been nervous. “We had asked them to pass the ball, but when you are playing in a derby match there is a lot of tension,” said Neilson. “The easiest thing in the world is to kick it up the park, but if you ask them to pass it you have to accept you will get mistakes, especially in a game like this where there is a lot of pressure and nerves before it. We were a wee bit disappointed, but it gives us something to work on.
“We go to Dumbarton next week. We dropped our first points against them this season and we want to right that wrong.”
Scoring the equaliser just before half-time was important, something acknowledged by the man who scored it, Jamie Walker, who received a ticking off from his manager for picking up a booking for his celebrations.
“That is probably the best goal I have ever scored and I’m just delighted that it brought the boys a point at the end of the day. I was just a bit over-excited with my celebration after I scored. I know that you cannot do that anymore, so I deserved a yellow card.
“Hibs were good in the first 20 or 30 minutes of the match, but we managed to stay in the game during that period and I then thought that we played quite well ourselves in the second half.”
The performance wasn’t the most fluid but it is that ability to weather the storm and still grind out results on a more consistent basis than any of their rivals, that has taken Hearts clear at the top.
“I think we have shown a good ability as a squad throughout this season to dig out results,” added Walker. “Hibs played well, but we managed to stick in there because we did not want to be losing our unbeaten run. We don’t want to lose it at all, but especially not at home against Hibs. The boys deserve a lot of credit for being able to do that.”
But while they have absolute faith in each other and have not ruled out seeing out the season without a league loss, Walker insists they will not be getting complacent.
“The boys go out every week and expect that we are going to win the match. That is the mentality you need to have and we just have to look at each game one at a time.
“Can we stay unbeaten? I think we have got the talent and the ability within the team to do so. But there are still an awful lot of hard games to go. We go to face Rangers at Ibrox in a couple of weeks and we also have to return to face Hibs at Easter Road, so there are tough places left to visit.
“No-one at this club will start celebrating anything until it is mathematically impossible for us to be caught in the league. There is still an awful lot play for in the remaining weeks of the season and no-one here is thinking that things are done and dusted.
“If Rangers were to beat us in a couple of weeks at Ibrox, it would make things tighter and the boys will just keep focused. To be fair, everyone has been focused. As you saw against Hibs, it was not our best performance of the season, but everyone dug in and we managed to get out of it with a draw.”