No-one at Hearts will tell you they are sure of finishing third, even if results at the weekend would render that more likely, but they will admit to having even loftier ambitions.
“You never say it’s over until it’s over,” said January signing John Souttar after helping his team to victory over Kilmarnock, on a day when all those around them were dropping points. “But we’ve got to be looking above us, as well. We’ve got to be chasing Aberdeen and see what happens.”
A faltering in form has been evident but the return to winning ways was all that mattered against a Kilmarnock team in the thick of the tight tussle for Premiership safety. But, if Hearts are looking above them, the Rugby Park side should be looking over their shoulder, at Dundee United. Having looked dead and buried the Tannadice team have reduced the deficit to eight points, with a game in hand.
There was enough in evidence on Saturday to suggest that Lee Clark should be capable of keeping his men clear of the automatic relegation spot, but they should still be wary of a play-off. Against Hearts they had moments of positivity and decent spells of possession but they had to rely on a slice of luck, a goalline clearance and some top drawer shot-stopping to keep the score tight right to the end.
Having seen Craig Slater sclaff a wonderful first-minute opportunity to pile the pressure on their hosts by taking an early lead, sending his effort wide, Killie were punished five minutes later. A long ball pinged forward by Alim Öztürk was chased down by Prince Buaben but as he charged into the area he was bundled clumsily to the deck by Stuart Findlay and the referee awarded the penalty.
Jamie Walker’s first effort was pushed on to the post by Jamie MacDonald but the winger showed the greatest desire and the fastest reactions to get to the rebound first and dink it over the goalkeeper and into the net.
“I’m just surprised I saved a penalty, never mind two,” said MacDonald. “My recent record has not been great. It’s just unfortunate that, with the first one, the rebound has gone back to him and he’s put it away. By his shin, might I say. Such is life. When your luck’s not going for you, it’s not going for you.”
That was some self-deprecation. Most others inside the stadium, including the Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson, knew the man who had tended goal at the Gorgie club for many a year was more than capable of such heroics and had warned his players. That is why Walker was poised to see the job through via the rebound.
But when Hearts won a second penalty late in the game, after Josh Magennis, who claimed he had been xenophobically abused during the match, was penalised for handball, MacDonald recovered perfectly. Having saved Abiola Duada’s spot kick, he got up to block the follow-up from Sam Nicholson.
Nicholson could have had a goal earlier, but Findlay hooked it off the line. But, he was one of the biggest offensive threats, proving once again that he is maturing into a consistent performer. That could be coming at a good time to pique the interest of Scotland boss Gordon Strachan and with a few friendlies coming up and a new qualifying campaign to aim for, that is another incentive to keep producing the goods between now and the end of the season.
“The way I play in the next few games will determine that [whether he is in Strachan’s thoughts]. It’s not something I have given a lot of thought to, I’m just trying to do my best for the team and push as high as possible in the league,” said Nicholson. “But to get in one of those squads would be a massive bonus and would be a massive honour to represent your country. I just need to keep playing well for Hearts and winning games.
“The only way I will know whether I’m ready for that level is if I get tested at that level. Week on week I am trying to focus on improving, and just getting into the under-21s at the moment. Taking it step by step will help.”
Hearts have a number of players on the fringes, and a top-two finish would certainly catch Strachan’s eye.
Having seen off Kilmarnock, they are back to winning ways. They now just need to rediscover the form which had them firing on all cylinders just over a month ago and then they really can look to do more than simply consolidate third.