THIS time last year, Hearts were on the brink of relegation, able to do little more than wait to find out which match would finally seal their fate. Today, they are counting down to an altogether happier date with destiny.
This hard-fought victory – their first in the league this season after going behind – restored their 20-point lead in the Championship. The target they need to win the title is 21 points from their remaining games, and that is presuming that Rangers win all the matches they have left.
The Ibrox club, two points further behind second-placed Hibs, have three games in hand on both Edinburgh teams. They have to visit Easter Road and Tynecastle, as well as playing Hearts at home in the game rearranged from January.
As things stand, that latter match on 5 April could be Hearts’ first opportunity to wrap things up. If they win their five games before then, and Rangers win their seven, it will be game on.
Improbable? Yes, but so, at this point in 2014, was the prospect of an Edinburgh derby in which Hibs had the chance to send Hearts down – and six weeks later, that scenario had materialised.
Hibs failed to take that chance, of course, and the premature partying of their fans that day at Tynecastle will serve as a warning to anyone connected with Hearts who is feeling inclined to celebrate a title win now. Having said that, even the ever-cautious Robbie Neilson had to admit that claiming all three points at play-off contenders Queens was “a huge victory” – although midfielder Morgaro Gomis contented himself with a more modest adjective.
“This is a big result for us,” the Senegal international said. “We knew this was going to be a hard game as Queen of the South are a good team. They scored the first goal, but we just came back and started playing well again.
“It’s a good thing that we can win games even though we’re not playing the way we were at the start of the season. We’re not winning four- or five-nil, but a win is a win. There’s still a long way to go, but if we keep winning we should be okay.”
To say Hearts “should” be okay if they keep on winning may be ignoring simple arithmetic and taking caution too far, but it is indicative of the humility Neilson has instilled in his squad. It cannot be easy to keep your feet on the ground when you start to rack up such a large points advantage, but the head coach has ensured his players do exactly that.
Hearts’ pursuers may have sought solace in the fact that they are now scraping past teams rather than hammering them, on the grounds that if you go from 4-1 or 5-1 results to single-goal victories the next step is to start dropping points. But over their last ten matches Hearts have actually dropped fewer points than either Hibs or Rangers: five, from the defeat by Falkirk and the draw in the derby, compared to six by Hibs (three draws), and 14 by Rangers (four losses and a draw).
Having said that, they came close to dropping another two on Saturday, and Queens manager James Fowler rightly said afterwards that if his team continued to play as well as they had done here, they would win more games than they lost. But, even before Genero Zeefuik sidefooted in the winner with the assistance of a goal-line deflection, Hearts had steadily seized control of the game, with left-back Adam Eckersley and midfielder Miguel Pallardo emerging as the dominant performers. Eckersley, whose turn of pace when going forward had troubled Queens all afternoon, supplied the cross for the big Dutchman’s winner. Hearts held on in the face of some late pressure as the home team chased a point, but their defence, verging on the impregnable at times in the autumn, never looked wholly composed.
The uncertainty in the visitors’ back four was highlighted at the opening goal, created by Lewis Kidd from the right.
His low cross was allowed to traverse the goalmouth and reach David Carmichael, who had the simple task of shooting in from a few yards out. Although it is a relatively novel experience for Hearts to find themselves behind, they did not panic, and were level within eight minutes. Jamie Walker and Callum Paterson combined down the right from a disputed free kick, and the latter’s cross found Billy King close to the penalty spot. King’s looping half-volley gave Zander Clark no chance.
Hearts dominated the second half, and really should have had the points sewn up well before Zeefuik snatched the winner. It was not the first time this season that they were rewarded for patience and perseverance, and it will not be the last.
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