WITH the scoreline locked at 1-1 with just 11 minutes remaining and everyone working out just what results were now needed to allow Hearts to wrap up the title before the month’s end, Jamie Walker picked up the ball about 25 yards from goal and made sure that the arithmetic remained simple.
Scorers: Raith Rovers - Barr (43); Hearts - McHattie (27), Walker (79), King (85)
He and his colleagues would be leaving Fife with another three points and a similar outcome away to Falkirk this weekend would give them the opportunity to tie up a title when they return to Tynecastle to play Queen of the South on 28 March.
Billy King added a third with five minutes remaining to ease the nerves and underline the credentials of a team who have effectively had things wrapped up for months.
But it wasn’t an easy victory. On past evidence it is one they may have ground out but the fact that Raith were reduced to 10 men with 64 minutes gone certainly made it simplier.
It was full-bloodied and wild and it was, arguably, also enough to cost Raith Rovers at least a share of the points. If Christian Nade’s 64th-minute challenge on Kevin McHattie proved costly to his own team, the Hearts full-back will be grateful he did not have to pay an even greater price.
Making his first start following a lengthy injury lay-off, the Scot had made a dream impact when he opened the scoring for the champions elect but he must have feared the worst when he was sent spinning by the weight of his collision with the former Gorgie heavyweight.
But despite a gingerly approach to the next few minutes he was soon back in full stride, something that could not be said about Hearts as a whole as they struggled tio find the fluency and self-expression which has seen them quickly dismantle opponents once the opening goal has been bagged.
Up against a tenacious Raith Rovers side, their spirit and resolve epitomised by the dogged display of goalkeeper David McGurn, Hearts lacked the incisive end product.
On Saturday Hearts manager Robbie Neilson had explained the importance of squad rotation as he embarked on a massive week and a trio of matches which could combine to deliver them the Championship title.
Despite the role the winger had played in Hearts’ 10-0 mauling of Cowdenbeath in the previous match, he had benched Billy King. The response from the Scottish youngster was just what his gaffer must have been hoping for when he unleashed him midway through the second half. It was a similar story with mchattie and Walker last night.
Given the achievements of the club thus far it is no wonder that there is a feelgood vibe and a desperation from every player to grasp the opportunity to impress. Those feelings have only been magnified as the season creeps ever closer to a conclusion.
In his first start since November McHattie was in the right place at the right time to capitalise when James Keatings’ 27th minute shot was deflected into his path proved that Hearts’ goal threat is rampant throughout the squad. There were vociferous appeals for offside from the Raith players and the stalled celebrations suggested that even the league leaders were initially unsure of the veracity of their claim but the officials signalled the goal.
Hearts had controlled the early part of the contest but with decent saves and bold blocks from the Fifers it was no surprise that it took something a little quirky to break the deadlock.
The play started off with Hearts on the offensive, their determination not to dally en route to the title evident as they took the game to their hosts. With just four minutes gone they could have opened the scoring when Keatings and Sam Nicholson combined but Keatings could not beat McGurn with his low drive. In the sixth minute it was King who tried to find a way through with a speculative effort.
In the 14th minute King was the provider, picking out Nicholson with his corner. The keeper failed to collect but with the goal open, Nicholson’s effort was blocked.
The last time they had travelled to Kirkcaldy on league business, away back in August, they had run out 4-0 victors. In the most recent head to head, at Tynecastle in November, the gap had been smaller but the three points had still gone to the capital team. But Grant Murray’s side are no mugs. Capable of giving any team a game on their day, it is the up and down nature of results that has cost them this term. But they appeared in no mood to be on the end of one of Hearts’ one-sided scorelines, battling to keep things level.
When Genero Zeefuik played the ball into Keatings in the 21st minute his first time shot was foiled by another decent stop by the keeper and a minute later the big striker was the one denied, this time by a bold Rory McKeown block at the near post.
But Hearts finally benefited from that 27th minute deflection and McHattie’s cheeky little flick with the outside of his left boot gave them the advantage their play merited. Aggrieved by the absence of a flag, it galvanised the home side and having steadied themselves they were soon in the hunt for an equaliser.
They came close when Grant Anderson fizzed an inviting ball across the area in the 40th minute and two minutes before the break they did restore parity. It was Conroy’s corner which did the damage, his delivering finding Craig Barr, whose header dipped over Neil Alexander and into the net.
It led to some jittery second-half moments as Raith matched their urgency and desire but not the quality that has taken Hearts to the brink of the Championship title.
Raith Rovers: McGurn, Thomson, Watson, Barr, McKeown, Anderson, Callachan, Fox, Conroy, Vaughan (Stewart 71), Nade. Subs Not Used: Cuthbert, Hill, Moon, Scott, Robertson, Matthews.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, Ozturk, Wilson, McHattie, King (Anderson 89), Gomis, Pallardo, Nicholson, Keatings (Walker 73), Zeefuik (El Hassnaoui 88). Subs Not Used: Gallacher, Sow, McGhee, Eckersley.
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