THE ability to win ugly is a necessary strength for any team with aspirations of winning a title.
However, it is the capability of this Hearts side to play well below their best and still defeat opponents by a comfortable margin that now has them favourites with the bookmakers to lift this season’s Scottish Championship trophy.
Osman Sow’s 39th-minute thunderbolt, which crossed the line by inches after coming via the underside of the bar, swung the game dramatically in the visitors’ favour. Prior to the goal they had been struggling to get to grips with Queen of the South’s pressing as the hosts created the better chances in the opening exchanges.
Looking back on the match, Queens will regret a couple of unlucky bounces that, had they gone the other way, could have given them the honour of being the first Championship side to take all three points from Hearts. Instead, Andy Dowie’s ninth-minute header came back off the post right into the arms of Neil Alexander, while Sow’s 18-yard rocket bounced down just the wrong side of the goal-line for James Fowler’s men.
Every title contender needs a little bit of luck along the way. However, Hearts are due significant credit for the way in which they pressed home their advantage, particularly after Prince Buaben gave them a two-goal cushion. Robbie Neilson’s side are a team who have looked totally at ease defending leads this season. As Queens tried desperately to force their way back into the game, Hearts’ array of pacy attackers were content to exploit the extra space behind the home defence.
Meanwhile, at the other end, the centre-half pairing of Alim Ozturk and Danny Wilson were well equipped to keep possession ticking over, chewing up time and stopping desperate opponents from forcing the issue.
The ease with which they saw out the game prompted Neilson to, once again, criticise his players’ inability to convert chances later in the match.
Jordan McGhee made it 3-0 with just over half an hour remaining. After winning possession from his right-back position he surged into the opposing six-yard box to get on the end of Billy King’s cross. Sow and Jamie Walker had further chances to extend the advantage. The former fired into the side-netting after bursting down the left, while Walker saw his close-range shot come back off the post.
Neilson, having made similar comments following last week’s 5-0 win at Livingston, wasn’t going to be reticent about repeating those tough words.
“I think we need to be more ruthless at times,” Neilson stressed after the match. “We’re 3-0 up and we start to take more touches in the box when we should be hitting shots.
“We gave away a few chances as well, which is something we’ll have to look at and work on. You can’t get the perfect performance, but we need to try and get as close as we can to it. There is always room for improvement.”
The lead over Rangers at the top of the table remains six points and, though it feels a lot wider due to the quality of Hearts’ play in comparison to their rivals, the Hearts squad know there is still a lot of football left to be played.
“We take it game by game. We can’t look too far ahead of ourselves,” said King. “We’ve made a good start and have now played all but one team in the division. We just need to get the momentum going.”
Hearts are unlikely to be found wanting in terms of squad depth this season. The summer recruits, a number of them coming in from the continent to complement the exclusively home-based squad which remained from last season, have added quality to the team.
The latest signing, Miguel Pallardo, made his debut as a late substitute in Dumfries. The raft of new arrivals over the past few months have afforded Neilson plenty options with regards to team selection and, according to King, helped improve the youngsters who remained at the club from last season. “They’ve raised the standard of the squad significantly,” added the winger. “There’s a good bit of experience with guys like Morgaro [Gomis] and [Prince] Buaben, and guys who have real quality.
“The way they play has helped the likes of us – me, Sam Nicholson, Jamie Walker – because we like to play that way. I don’t really know what they’re like away from training, but for football they always come in and are hard working.
“They’ve got a good attitude. They’re good to be around.”