NOT for the first time this season, Hearts came good in the end. During a brisk, wholesome match at Tynecastle yesterday, the Championship front-runners took the lead, lost it and almost fell behind before finally pulling away with three goals in the last 25 minutes.
Scorers: Hearts - Keatings 20; Wilson 66; Buaben 72; Eckersley 78; Queen of the South - Russell 55 pen
Whether it is fitness, mental strength or just coincidence, their habit of scoring late goals has been a pleasing feature of their season. This time it was Danny Wilson, Prince Buaben and Adam Eckersley who added to James Keatings’ spectacular early strike for a victory that consolidates their nine-point lead over second-placed Rangers.
It also maintains their unbeaten league record, the only one in British football after Chelsea’s lunchtime loss at Newcastle. In 15 Championship matches, they have won 13, drawn two and conceded just eight goals in the process. “There will come a point in the season when we lose a game, but the longer we keep it going, the better for the team, and the better for the points tally,” said their manager, Robbie Neilson.
A side with less character might have lost this one. There was a spell early in the second half when Queen of the South equalised and came within a fraction of taking the lead, but Hearts responded to the challenge by digging deep and eventually seeing off the league’s third-placed side with something to spare.
“In the second half, Queens did really well,” said Neilson. “That’s probably one of the best performances an away team has had against us this season, but we managed to stay strong. Once the second goal came, it opened up and we could start hitting on the counter-attack. It’s a great result, a great win for us.”
That they did it without so many key players was also impressive. Wilson, their captain, returned to the defence, but young Robbie Buchanan enjoyed his first start alongside Keatings in attack, and Nathan Flanagan made his debut as a late substitute.
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Queens made a bright enough start, especially with a succession of dangerous crosses whipped across the penalty box, but they fell behind to a route-one goal that was finished off in the most ruthless manner. On a bitter, blustery day at Tynecastle, the Queens defence misjudged Wilson’s long ball, and Keatings sprinted in behind to lash a stunning left-foot volley over the goalkeeper.
It was the sweetest of hits, one that lifted Hearts and visibly unsettled their opponents. In the minutes that followed, Queens were fortunate not to concede another. Callum Paterson cut inside and produced a low drive that the goalkeeper fumbled wide. Then, when Andy Dowie was adjudged to have pushed Paterson in the box, the referee awarded a penalty. Prince Buaben stepped up to take it, but his lazy effort came back off the base of the left-hand post.
John Robertson, the former Hearts striker, was interviewed on the pitch at half-time. His warning that Queen of the South were not beaten yet, and that they would take control of the match given half the chance, proved to be a good call. By replacing Mark Kerr with Derek Lyle, they improved their options up front and immediately seized the initiative. Ian McShane, whose dead-ball delivery was causing all sorts of problems, had one shot beaten away and another saved, this time more comfortably, by Neil Alexander.
Eventually, their pressure paid off, albeit in controversial fashion. McShane broke across the 18-yard line, Jamie Walker bundled him down from behind and the referee awarded a penalty. Wilson was booked for protesting that the foul had been committed outside the box, but it made no difference to the outcome.
From the spot, Iain Russell thrashed his shot between the goalkeeper and his right-hand post.
At this stage, Queens looked capable of going ahead. Mark Durnan headed another McShane free-kick on to the top of the net. Then, when Chris Higgins met McShane’s corner full on the forehead, only a save and goal-line clearance prevented his team taking the lead.
It was a difficult period for Hearts, but they emerged from it with a timely goal that carried a bit of luck. When Keatings’ corner was flicked on at the front post, Wilson didn’t so much convert as fail to get out of the ball’s way. From a couple of yards, his connection sent it in off the upright.
Still, their opponents came again, most notably when Lyle’s left-foot shot fizzed past the junction of bar and post, but any lingering hope they had of salvaging a point was soon extinguished by a third Hearts’ goal.
At the end of a long passing move in which the ball was shuttled from back to front and then from left to right, across the front of the penalty area, Scott Robinson fed Buaben in the box. The midfielder’s low shot across the goalkeeper disappeared into the far corner of the net.
Neither was that the end of Hearts’ scoring. With 12 minutes left, Paterson sent Billy King clear of the defence, where he veered inside and set up Eckersley with a clever backheel. The left-back lifted his shot beyond the goalkeeper.
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