ALIM Ozturk has almost single-handedly preserved Hearts’ lead in the Scottish Championship. Two goals in successive matches by the Turkish defender, both of them outrageous efforts that came from nothing, have turned one point into four and kept second-placed Rangers at arm’s length.
Hearts 1-0 Raith Rovers
Scorer: Hearts - Ozturk (4)
First there was the stoppage-time equaliser at Easter Road two weeks ago. Then came the only goal of the game at Tynecastle on Saturday. That both seemed to be hit from somewhere west of the Edinburgh bypass only goes to show what it takes to keep a bandwagon rolling.
This was a stodgy, laboured performance by Hearts, who managed scarcely another shot on goal in the entire 90 minutes, but they won without playing well, which we are told is the stuff of champions. “Another 3 points today,” tweeted Craig Levein, their director of football, on Saturday night. “Not at our best and still grinding it out. Love it.”
So, too, do the Hearts fans, who have found something of a cult hero in Ozturk. With his derby stunner fresh in the memory, they shouted “shoooooot” when he gathered possession in midfield after four minutes, hardly expecting that he would. When he did, the ball took off, much like his Easter Road missile, with a dip and a swerve, before ending its 35-yard journey behind Davie McGurn, the wrong-footed Raith goalkeeper.
At the other end, McGurn’s counterpart, Neil Alexander, was watching through the rain. He has had a few of those to deal with in training, but he didn’t expect two of them to find the net in consecutive games.
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“He’s obviously full of confidence,” said Alexander. “They were telling him to shoot so I think he took it on board. When he shot, I was right behind it. It was moving all over the place. I have a lot of sympathy for the goalkeeper because it was a horrible ball to try and save. And in these conditions, the ball is like a bar of soap. But it was a great goal and it keeps us going.”
The early breakthrough should have set up Hearts for another canter, like the 4-0 win at Stark’s Park in August, but it didn’t turn out that way. They had plenty of the ball, but they lacked penetration, even ideas, on a day when Robbie Neilson, their manager, admitted that it had been difficult to focus. It was, of course, Remembrance weekend, always an emotional time for Hearts, but more so this year, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One.
A century back, players from both of these clubs swelled the ranks of McCrae’s Battalion. Ten of them never returned – seven from Hearts, three from Raith.
It made for an emotional afternoon. A lone piper was followed by the minute’s silence and a match in which both teams wore their commemorative strips. Raith’s away kit, green and black like the tartan of the Royal Scots Regiment, carried the word “Remember” on its chest.
While Raith could not be mistaken for the dominant team, they were unfortunate not to equalise, especially near the end, when Hearts were down to ten men. Neilson had used all his substitutes, Adam Eckersley having hirpled off with a sore hip, and the home side were hanging on. When Jason Thomson, the Raith full-back, stepped inside an opponent and set up Mark Stewart, the substitute could have scored, but his low shot lacked the power to beat Alexander.
Then, when a clearance by the Hearts goalkeeper landed at the feet of Liam Fox, the latter’s first-time effort didn’t quite have the pace to beat the retreating Alexander.
Hearts are away to Falkirk on Saturday. The following week, they entertain Rangers, who are just four points behind them in the title race. Alexander and his team-mates hardly need telling that, if they are to emerge from those games with their four-point lead intact, they will have to perform better than they did on Saturday.
“I thought we were poor today,” admitted the goalkeeper. “To be really honest, I thought Raith deserved something out of the game, especially the way they played in the second half. All credit to them, they made it really difficult for us to play to our strengths. They’ve stopped us playing. They’ve made it really difficult. At the end, we’re hanging on a wee bit. We’re disappointed. We know we can play better, but when you look back at the end of the season, it could be a fantastic three points.”
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