HEARTS’ form at Tynecastle this term has been imperious, with the Championship leaders boasting a 100 per cent record and scoring 30 goals along the way.
So, when Billy King described their trip to Almondvale as “just like a home game”, it should come as no surprise that Hearts managed to cruise to another notable victory.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
King’s words were more than the standard praise every player around the country tends to heap upon their own fan base, with the travelling support arriving in West Lothian in truly remarkable numbers.
Three sides of the Energy Assets Arena were decked in maroon, with their numbers estimated at north of 7,000. The official attendance was announced at 8,178, confirming that the visiting supporters outnumbered the home fans by seven to one.
At full-time, the tannoy announcer declared that no club in Britain registered a bigger away support over the traditional Boxing Day weekend.
Of course, such accolades would have been rendered utterly irrelevant if Robbie Neilson’s side had failed to do the business on the pitch, but a first-half strike by James Keatings ensured there was no danger of that.
“It was a bit strange, a bit different, with there being more than 7,000 Hearts fans,” King remarked.
“Three stands were filled with Hearts fans and that gave us great motivation and spurred us on. It undoubtedly helped us. To be honest, it just felt like we were playing at Tynecastle.
“It was an immense travelling support and undoubtedly played a part in us getting the three points.”
King certainly thrived in the familiar atmosphere, turning in a mature performance, packed with direct running and dangerous deliveries, after being brought into the side to replace Jamie Walker.
He dashed down the left flank to deliver the decisive goal of the game, producing a marvellous deep cross for Keatings to tap home at the back post – his fourth goal in as many matches.
Despite the deadlock being broken after just 25 minutes, the goal had been a long time coming, with Hearts starting the game at an almighty pace.
Keatings missed a 12th-minute penalty kick, drilling a powerful low effort into the legs of the sprawling Livingston goalkeeper Darren Jamieson, who continues to display a remarkable aptitude for spot-kick saves.
Hearts’ second-half performance was fairly underwhelming but, as has become a habit in recent weeks, they had the wherewithal to see out the game, even striking the post through Prince Buaben.
The triumph increased Hearts’ lead at the summit of the Championship to a mammoth 15 points following Rangers’ dismal 4-0 capitulation against Hibernian.
Head coach Neilson has said numerous times that he treats Rangers’ results with complete indifference, re-iterating that if Hearts win their own games then the efforts of the Glasgow club will be irrelevant.
However, King conceded that news of events in the capital provided a welcome pre-match boost.
“Rangers are second in the league and are our title challengers, so to find out that Hibs had beaten them 4-0 really spurred us on to get the victory,” said the 20-year-old.
“The chance to go 15 points clear was a massive incentive and motivated us to grind out the right result.
“I was definitely surprised by the result at Easter Road. I thought it would have been a much tighter game. But we have to keep concentrating on ourselves and racking up the wins.
“The win over Livingston maybe wasn’t as good as the performances that we put in at the start of the season. But three points is the same in any game and the win is all that matters. Titles are won in games like that.”
As is traditional at this time of year, there is no rest for the wicked. Hearts’ attention immediately turns to Saturday’s mouth-watering derby against Hibs at Tynecastle.
Despite a 19-point chasm between the sides, it could be argued that Hibs are likely to emerge as Hearts’ most credibe title challengers in the new year, such is the turmoil enveloping Ibrox. And King has no intention of handing their city rivals any additional encouragement in their chase.
“Hibs started the season slowly but they have picked up in the past couple of months,” he added. “They are playing really well now and are a good attacking team. You can see that from the Rangers result. We need to be on our toes. Our mindset has been the same all season. We have won all of our league games except two draws, which is magnificent, so we are looking to continue that in the second half of the season. That starts with Hibs.
“The Tynecastle atmosphere is electric on derby day, the fans will be buzzing for the game. It’s a different game altogether and I cant wait to play in it. Hopefully we get the right result.”
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS