AT A ground overlooked by a fast-food outlet, Hearts made quick work of this one. Miguel Pallardo and James Keatings gave them an early grip of a one-sided match at the Indodrill Stadium and, apart from a wobble midway through the second half, they never let go.
Scorers: Alloa Athletic - Spence 61; Hearts - Pallardo Gonzalez 5, Keatings 12, Walker 66, Paterson 90
If the performance wasn’t quite finger-lickin’ good, it was more than enough to see off the Championship’s relegation strugglers.
This was a potentially awkward challenge for the visitors, with its 5.30pm kick-off, on an artificial pitch, but they dealt with it comfortably.
Even when Greig Spence pulled a goal back for Alloa just after the hour, Hearts quickly regained control through Jamie Walker before Callum Paterson rounded off the scoring with a late header.
The three points moved Hearts 16 clear of Rangers, who now have two games in hand. They also meant that the Edinburgh club bounced back at the earliest opportunity from their first league defeat of the season, seven days earlier.
Manager Robbie Neilson said he had never been in any doubt that his team’s response would be immediate.
“We always knew that, if we continued doing what we had been doing, the performance would come,” he said.
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“It was really pleasing. We started the game well, as we did last week, but we moved on from that and got the second goal.
“Even when Alloa got the goal back, I don’t think we panicked at all. We kept passing the ball. When we got the third, it put the game to bed,” added Neilson
He made three changes to the team who had lost 3-2 to Falkirk, most notably Alim Ozturk, who returned from suspension. A week after the surprise loss of those three goals at Tynecastle, the Turkish defender shored up Hearts’ defence, while also offering his customary shooting threat from long range.
So, too, were his team-mates willing to speculate from distance as a bitter wind swept across the pitch. By the time Craig McDowall was fumbling Ozturk’s curling free kick over the bar, Hearts were already coasting courtesy of two ripping shots from outside the box.
Only five minutes had elapsed when Morgaro Gomis laid the ball off to Pallardo, who was also returning to the starting line-up. As the defence stood off, the Spanish midfielder struck a crisp right-foot shot into the top corner of the net.
Seven minutes later, it was Keatings’ turn to pick his spot. After spinning Ben Gordon, the striker pulled his shot across the goalkeeper and into the bottom corner.
Given that Keatings was the other change to the team that lost against Falkirk, Neilson was entitled to be satisfied with his selection.
Between those goals, Paterson had cleared from the six-yard area after Stephen Simmons’ angled shot came off the post, but that was as much as Alloa could muster during a first half in which the visitors had complete control.
Adopting a midfield diamond in which Pallardo played behind Walker, with Gomis and Prince Buaben left and right, Hearts carved out openings almost at will. Walker sliced one wide, Danny Wilson’s scuffed effort was saved and Keatings nearly doubled his tally with a free-kick that glanced the crossbar.
After the interval, Alloa were more competitive, got tighter to their opponents and made Hearts work for their possession, but it wasn’t until their manager, Barry Smith, made a double substitution that it looked likely to make any difference.
On the hour mark, Calum Martin and Isaac Layne came on for Graeme Holmes and Liam Buchanan respectively, a change that briefly disorientated their opponents. In the minute Hearts needed to adjust, their lead was halved. Spence’s header, from Mark Docherty’s cross, wasn’t the cleanest, but it flew past Neil Alexander.
Hearts were briefly thrown by this setback, so much so that they almost conceded another when Martin hooked one past the upright, but the match soon settled into its former pattern. Osman Sow, who had been a handful all evening, was angry not to be awarded a penalty when Gordon’s challenge sent him sprawling in the box.
Then Walker took it upon himself to restore Hearts’ two-goal advantage. Picking up a loose ball in the midfield, he identified a gap between two Alloa defenders and burst through it. With only McDowall to beat, he calmly slid the ball under the goalkeeper’s body. He almost got a second when substitute Genero Zeefuik slid the ball to Adam Eckersley who pushed it into space at the back post. Walker was almost too close to the keeper, who blocked.
Hearts’ fourth came in the final minute. When a shot by another sub, Billy King, was touched over he took the corner and Paterson, outjumped his marker to power in a header.
Alloa: McDowall; Doyle, Gordon, Benedictus, Meggatt; Holmes (Martin 60), Simmons, McCord, Docherty; Buchanan (Layne 60), Spence. Unused subs: Marr, Tiffoney, Cawley, Hetherington, Gibson.
Hearts: Alexander; Paterson, Ozturk, Wilson, Eckersley; Walker (King 83), Buaben, Pallardo, Gomis; Keatings (Oliver 89), Sow (Zeefuik 69). Unused subs: Nicholson, McKay, McGhee, Gallacher.
Referee: S Finnie. Attendance: 2,592.