WITH no exceptions, Hearts looked like a very tidy group of players on Saturday when they handed out a comprehensive four-goal drubbing of Raith Rovers.
Raith Rovers 0-4 Hearts
Scorers: Hearts - Keatings (13, 28, 58), Oliver (90)
Sure, the home side had plenty of possession, but Hearts always looked the more incisive attacking force in a display of pace and passing that had their large contingent of fans – more than 4,000 in a 6,000 crowd – and neutral observers purring.
It is too early to say that this new version of Hearts are likely Championship winners, but with a 100 per cent record against their two biggest rivals, a third comfortable win over fancied rivals and a home match against the other main contenders, Falkirk, to come on Saturday, Hearts could end August in pole position for a top two spot that would guarantee at least a crack at promotion.
On Saturday’s showing, they would deserve it. Manager Robbie Neilson had been heavily criticised for fielding a weakened team in the midweek defeat by Livingston in the Petrofac Training Cup, but his stance was vindicated when Billy King, Sam Nicholson and Jason Holt were fresh as daisies and ran Raith into the ground ahead of Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben, who provided solidity in midfield.
Add quality in defence and the brilliance of James Keatings scoring a hat-trick on his full league debut, and Hearts were wonderfully on song – and Keatings only gained his place because Osman Sow was suspended.
“We are all delighted for him,” said Hearts’ captain Danny Wilson. “He has had to bide his time, and he has not really had the chances that he wanted, but today he showed his qualities, not just for his goals but for his all round-play.”
Though they put in a shift, Raith were simply too slow to match Hearts as was shown by Keatings’ third goal when Nicholson ran at Raith diagonally for 40 yards before he was pulled down by a lumbering Ross Perry.
Keatings had already shown lightning-fast reactions to score twice in the first half, his opener being all about a cool finish off a close-range chance, and his second being even cooler, the ex-Hamilton man controlling the rebound of Raith goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert’s chest in one move and feeding the ball on to his favoured left foot so that he could hammer the ball home.
Raith were statuesque at both goals, and their defensive wall for Keatings’ 58th minute third was an irrelevance as the striker curled his left-foot shot up, over and round the defence, giving Cuthbert no chance. The fourth goal just on full-time by substitute Gary Oliver was the deserved icing on the cake.
Raith had their chances, and on one occasion were foiled by a quite magnificent save by a suddenly very assured-looking Jack Hamilton, the Hearts goalkeeper diving high to his left to tip away a goalbound free kick by Ryan Conroy.
That Sow could be missing and Hearts still score four says a lot for their strength in depth. Said Wilson: “We have missed big Osman, but James has come in and done the business. That’s what we need – players who are not in the team to show a good attitude then take their chance, so well done to him.”
Hearts’ good start must continue, said Wilson, and manager Robbie Neilson’s playing philosophy is winning him fans in the dressing room as well as in the stands.
Wilson said: “We trust what he is doing and we are all buying into the way we are playing, and I think that showed today.”
Neilson himself was not going to dwell on the fact that Hearts are the only team in the Championship with a 100 per cent record after three games.
Calling for his men to be “relentless”, Neilson said: “If we get to ten games in and we have a 100 per cent record, I’ll take that. We just need to keep winning and keep winning, but we are only three games in and there is still a long, long way to go.
“The Rangers and the Hibs games take care of themselves, it’s the games outwith that we must make sure we win – and they are all hard to win.”
Keep playing the way they did on Saturday and Hearts will not only please their own fans, but will make many new ones as well.