AFTER all the club has been through in recent years, it is hardly surprising that Hearts respond well to adversity. It’s in the DNA. Where once there was debt and administration, now there are injuries and equalisers, both of which Robbie Neilson’s side overcame at Tynecastle on Saturday to continue their relentless pursuit of the title.
Hearts 4-1 Queen of the South
Scorers: Hearts - Keatings (19), Wilson (67), Buaben (74), Eckersley (79); Queen of the South - Russell (56 pen)
Not for nothing are they the only team in Britain with an unbeaten league record. Their 15 matches in the Scottish Championship this season have included 13 victories. Some of them have been easy, some of them tough, but all have had in common a commitment to getting the job done, irrespective of circumstance.
Here was another demonstration of the character that has taken them nine points clear of second-placed Rangers. Without several key players – from Osman Sow up front to Kevin McHattie in defence and Morgaro Gomis in midfield – they extricated themselves from an awkward spot and eventually pulled away to secure all three points.
Queen of the South were a significant hurdle to overcome. Neilson said that, in the league this season, no away team had performed better at Tynecastle. The visitors started brightly, cancelled out James Keatings’ spectacular opening goal and threatened to go ahead during a spell, early in the second half, when they flooded towards Neil Alexander’s goal.
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
But Hearts responded, as is their wont, with a timely goal, by Danny Wilson, and pulled away with two more, by Prince Buaben and Adam Eckersley. That they managed, in the process, to give Nathan Flanagan his debut, and Robbie Buchanan his first start, only added to the sense of achievement.
Hearts’ record is self-perpetuating. The longer they go without a loss, the more they want to avoid one. The fewer times they concede – and, at the moment, it stands at a miserly eight – the prouder they become of their “goals against” column. It all adds up to extra motivation in their remorseless quest to win the league.
The party line is that they are not invincible, that defeat is inevitable somewhere along the line. Only by recognising that possibility will they be ready to avoid it. It is an attitude that Keatings, who won promotion with Hamilton Academical last season, will take to Central Park on Saturday, where Cowdenbeath will be their next opponents.
“You can’t expect to go and get three points in every game in this league,” said the striker. “At Hamilton last season, Alloa came to our place and took six points. On their day, anyone can beat anyone. It’s up to us to keep on our toes and not lose concentration.
“We want to go as long as we can without getting beat. We’ve shown we’re a strong group of players. Within the group every week we’re talking to each other and testing each other. We want to keep improving.”
Keatings will struggle to score a better goal than the one that opened the scoring on Saturday. When Wilson’s long ball was misjudged by the Queens defence, the striker sprinted in behind to lash a dipping volley beyond the goalkeeper.
Hearts’ best spell quickly followed, but Buaben’s penalty miss, after Callum Paterson had been shoved in the box, let Queens off the hook. The visitors responded with a spot-kick of their own, converted by Iain Russell after Jamie Walker had brought down Ian McShane. Wilson was booked for protesting that the foul had been committed outside the box.
That was followed by the game’s crucial moment, a powerful Chris Higgins header that was saved by Alexander and cleared from the goal-line by Scott Robinson. Four minutes later, Hearts were ahead. Keatings swung in the corner and Wilson, back in the side after injury, diverted it in off the front post.
To their great credit, Queens kept pressing, but when Buaben pulled a low shot into the bottom corner with 18 minutes left, the game was a bogey. Eckersley’s late fourth, after Billy King’s clever backheel, gave the scoreline a flattering complexion, but there is no room for mercy in this results business.
That is why Hearts have conceded points only to Dumbarton and Hibernian this season. Despite a 4-0 thrashing by Celtic in the William Hill Scottish Cup last weekend, their Championship bandwagon continues to roll.
“It’s massive to bounce back from the Celtic game,” said Keatings. “You hear people saying through the week, ‘have they got the character to go and win after a heavy defeat to Celtic?’ We showed already our focus. The togetherness is great in the group. We all want to be there for each other.”
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS