IT IS easy for opposing managers to predict how Hearts will play against them. It is altogether more difficult for them to figure out a way of stopping Robbie Neilson’s team.
Hearts 4-1 Falkirk
Scorers: Hearts - McGhee (17), King (25, 37), Sow (pen 78); Falkirk - Bia-Bi (86)
Fast, direct and blessed with no little skill, Hearts have two key attributes which enable them to carry out their game plan: a solid spine, from Danny Wilson and Alim Ozturk at the back to Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben in midfield and on to the bustling Osman Sow up front; and the finesse out wide of Sam Nicholson and Billy King to help stretch the opposition out of shape. It is an impressive combination of solidity and subtlety, and Falkirk, like Rangers, Hibernian and Raith Rovers before them, had no answer to it.
Even allowing for the fact that the visitors committed some avoidable and costly errors, this was an excellent display by the league leaders. It took them around ten minutes to get into their stride as Falkirk got off to a lively start, but once the first goal went in there was no doubt about the outcome.
Bearing in mind that this is the Championship rather than the top flight, it would be over the top to liken this display to some of the outings under George Burley in the early autumn of 2005, even if the relentless tempo employed in the first half was reminiscent of those heady days. A more accurate comparison would be with the Hearts side of a few years earlier when Craig Levein, then the manager now the director of football, assembled a team with the same combination of strength through the middle and artfulness on the flanks.
What is really significant, however, is the fact that the sense of purpose displayed on the field of play is equally evident behind the scenes. This is a club which has a coherent recovery plan, one in which all employees, not only the playing staff, know their role.
“Join the revival”, the marketing slogan runs, and another sell-out home crowd was testament to its success. Inevitably, there will be difficult days ahead in which the loyalty of the support will be tested, but right now the bond between fans and club is definitely closer than at any time since the early days of Vladimir Romanov’s reign, and arguably at its strongest since the so-near-and-yet-so-far league campaign of 1985-86.
“We want to play as quick as we can,” striker James Keatings said when asked to sum up the team’s style. “We want to play one, two-touch football. Today we kind of showed that in periods.
“In the first half I thought we played some great football. The link-up play from back to front was brilliant, the movement as well. I was delighted to be playing in it.
“The boys are happy coming into training. They’re enjoying it. When you’re enjoying football it’s the best thing, because you jump out of bed in the morning and you want to go to it. There’s a good mood in the camp and hopefully it stays that way.”
Keatings’ own mood would have been a touch sunnier had he scored from any of the handful of chances that fell his way, and on another day he might easily have emulated his hat-trick heroics of the previous week. But his touch looked out at times, while at others he was thwarted by Falkirk goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, without whose fine display the margin of defeat would have become embarrassing for his side.
“It was just one of those days,” the striker added. “I think I had five shots and obviously missed the penalty and a follow-up as well. I’m delighted that the team won, although obviously disappointed with myself for not scoring, but it was one of those days when I could have had ten shots and not one of them would have gone in. I got an assist – it is a team game, and I helped my team-mates, so I’m happy about that.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed in myself for not finishing, but Jamie had a really good game against me. On another day they would have gone in.”
That penalty, the first of two awarded to Hearts, came midway through the first half after Alan Maybury had brought down Sam Nicholson. As Keatings said, both his initial effort and his follow-up shot were blocked by MacDonald, but Billy King reacted more quickly than anyone to the second rebound and scored low into the corner.
By that time Jordan McGhee had scored with a header from a central position after the Falkirk defence had failed to cut out the danger, and then less than ten minutes before half-time King rounded off a rapid break started by Nicholson by heading in a Keatings cross.
The second half was becalmed, and although Hearts had several more chances to add to their lead, they only succeeded in doing so from the penalty spot after Sow had been brought down by Will Vaulks. The big Swede took the award himself and scored with ease.
The loss of a late goal to substitute Botte bia-Bi was a source of annoyance for Neilson, as was the needless red card shown to Buaben for a two-footed tackle.
Even so, with 12 points from four games and a goal difference of plus nine, the former full-back could hardly have hoped for a better start to his career as a head coach.