Scorers: Hearts - Walker (40)
Hearts got all three points and moved ahead with their conscious uncoupling from the chasing teams but it wasn’t the one-sided march to victory they have enjoyed many times this term.
This was the second meeting with Livingston in successive weeks and last Saturday Robbie Neilson’s men needed two goals in the final eight minutes to secure the win. This weekend, they struggled to combat their guests’ will and their own nerves.
“Rangers played on Friday night and got beat and that adds pressure. We knew it was a fantastic opportunity if we could get the three points,” said manager Robbie Neilson.
In their previous home game they suffered their first league defeat of the campaign, but while this one was rarely comfortable, it did end with another victory and saw the Tynecastle side increase their lead over their nearest challengers to 20 points.
But they needed a fortuitous goal to do it. It came in the 40th minute when Jamie Walker broke forward and while he momentarily lost control of the ball he was lucky that it came back off the defender and into his path, allowing him to bear down on Darren Jamieson’s goal and eventually find the net.
James Keatings had earlier come close, but his 18th-minute effort was pushed over the bar before Walker had another chance when he cut into a central position before firing in a shot which the goalkeeper saved.
While Hearts had openings and they spent much of that early period in Livingston’s half, they were also made well aware that their visitors were in the mood to capitalise on any jitters.
Jordan White was the first to challenge, but his half-volley from about 25 yards out was saved by Neil Alexander. Then, in the 31st minute, Adam Eckersley had to clear on the line.
The sell-out home crowd were getting edgy as half-time approached and Walker’s goal only eased the tension temporarily. With bad blood lingering after Jason Talbot’s high-footed assault on Sam Nicholson last weekend, which led to his suspension for this game, it did not take much to ignite the passions. Kung-Fu Fighting had been one of the songs played over the PA system as the teams warmed up and it did little to quell any ill-feeling and when Declan Gallagher’s boot connected with Callum Paterson’s head early in the second half, it took a while before tempers cooled.
But when they did it was Livingston who seemed to respond most positively. With the league leaders’ decision-making below par and their cutting edge blunted, it was Craig Sives who almost equalised.
His header from a Burton O’Brien free-kick forced Alexander to intervene and divert it over the bar.
When Nejc Praprotnik was sent off for a second bookable offence with 17 minutes remaining, the home support urged their men to wrap things up with a second goal but despite the fact that one Livingston header came back off the bar and Genaro Zeefuik came close, they could not deliver. Even when second-half substitute Billy King was gifted a great chance from a couple of yards out in stoppage time, he weighed in with a spectacular miss.
It may have been nerves or it could have been the fact that this was their third meeting with Livingston in seven weeks, their fifth this season, that left them with little scope to surprise. But whatever it was this was a match where they had to work hard for three points.
In the post-match press conference Neilson was informed that Hearts have never lost a match on Valentine’s Day. It was not a record he was familiar with. But if it means his men move a step closer to their season’s goal, it’s one he was happy to extend.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, Ozturk, Wilson, Eckersley, Walker,
Pallardo, Buaben, Keatings (Gomis 68), Anderson (King 45), Zeefuik (Oliver 90) . Unused subs: Gallacher, El Hassnaoui, Nicholson, McGhee.
Livingston: Jamieson, Fordyce, Gallagher, Sives, Kyle Jacobs, Keaghan Jacobs, O’Brien (Glen 70), Praprotnik, Mullen (Beaumont 87), White, Sekajja (McKenna 82). Unused subs: Walker, Hippolyte, Pittman, Rutherford.
Referee: A Muir. Attendance: 15,463.
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