HEARTS had to plug away all afternoon before finally claiming the three points yesterday, but while the margin of victory was narrow, there was no mistaking the significance of the result as far as Robbie Neilson was concerned.
Scorers: Queen of the South - Carmichael 23; Hearts - King 31; Zeefuik 84
“It’s a huge victory for us,” the league leaders’ head coach said after a win which took his team 20 points clear again at the top of the Championship. “Not a lot of teams win down here. We’ve got two home games coming up, which will be difficult games as well, but this was the one for me. This was a huge step towards the title.”
Daniel Carmichael’s opening goal came slightly against the run of play, and Billy King soon had Hearts back on level terms. For long passages of a low-key second half it looked as if Hearts would have to settle for a point, but Genero Zeefuik popped up in the closing minutes to restore the points advantage with which his team had begun the weekend.
A Paul Burns shot after five minutes was the first time either goalkeeper was called into action following a cautious start to the game, and Michael Paton had a shot off target soon after that. On the whole, though, it was Hearts who had most of the pressure during those early exchanges, with King and Jamie Walker both making inroads down the wings.
Midway through the first half an angled flick by Walker momentarily appeared to have put Prince Buaben through on goal, but the midfielder, who had earlier needed treatment for a leg knock, was quickly closed down.
The Hearts defence, by contrast, was not nearly so alert to the danger when Lewis Kidd set off on a run down the right. His low, outswinging cross was allowed to go beyond the back post to the unmarked Carmichael, who calmly tapped in from a few yards out.
Unsurprisingly for a team who had lost only once in the league all season, Hearts have rarely been behind in games, but they were not fazed by finding themselves in such unfamiliar circumstances. Instead, they persisted with their policy of patient probing, and it paid off when Walker and Callum Paterson combined to set up the equaliser for King. Paterson ran on to Walker’s well-timed pass, then crossed low into the box, and King’s first-time strike from close to the penalty spot looped round Zander Clark on its way into the net.
Hearts had chances to take the lead before the break, but efforts by Zeefuik and Walker were both kept out, while Buaben sent an ambitious volley over the bar. It was the Ghanaian’s last involvement of the game, as Kenny Anderson replaced him for the second half.
Hearts had the lion’s share of possession in that second period, but rarely attacked at a pace to trouble the home team. Anderson looked off the pace and Zeefuik was often isolated, but Adam Eckersley put in a power of work as an auxiliary attacker. Zeefuik was not far off the mark with a shot on the turn 20 minutes from time, but for all their pressure that was a rare scoring chance for Hearts.
Queens continued to threaten occasionally, but were more ragged than in the first half, and eventually succumbed to the sustained pressure from the leaders. Eckersley’s cross from the left was sidefooted towards goal by Zeefuik, and Michael Higgins could do no more than touch it as it crossed the line.
Hearts had to withstand a late attacking flurry, but held on for a deserved win.
Queens’ only consolation was that on this form they will put up a strong challenge for the last play-off spot. “The effort put in restricted Hearts to a few chances, and we were delighted with the overall performance,” Queens manager James Fowler said. “There are bigger games to come and if we put in the same effort we’ll win more than we lose.”
Queen of the South: Clark, Dowie, Durnan, Higgins, Holt, Burns, Millar (McKenna 76), Kidd, Carmichael, Paton (Pickard 86), Lyle (Russell 80). Subs not used: Atkinson, Hooper, Mitchell, Slattery.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, Ozturk, Wilson, Eckersley, Walker, Gomis, Pallardo, Buaben (Anderson 46), King (McKay 89), Zeefuik (Sow 86). Subs not used: Hamilton, Nicholson, Keatings, El Hassnaoui.
Referee: E Anderson. Attendance: 5,100.
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