Rangers maintained their place at the top of the Premiership pile but they will still be able to feel the capital side’s breath on their necks as Robbie Neilson’s players proved that they have the character and the capability to carry the weight of expectation and extend their unbeaten start to the league season to an impressive nine games.
Still just one point behind the defending champions, they had to delve deep at times to repel their Glasgow hosts, who put in a strong first-half display but they failed to convert all but one of their chances.
Some of that was due to their own inadequacies in front of goal, which frustrated manager Steven Gerrard wants remedied before Brondby head to Glasgow on Europa League action on Thursday. But they were also up against a Hearts squad that has rediscovered its backbone and their team spirit, and their unremitting resolve allowed them to weather the stormy periods while the burgeoning inner drive saw them emerge from those spells with the undented belief needed to keep pushing to the end and earn the reward.
“We’re happy to take a point and keep the unbeaten run going,” said Steven Kingsley, who was just one part of the brick wall Rangers kept running into, jockeying, blocking, and clearing the danger time and time again and providing the frontmen the foundation to launch attacks, particularly in a much more competitive second half.
“We’re disappointed not to get the three but I think it was a fair result,” he added. “We were pleased with the performance. We had a few chances and a couple of one on ones we didn’t put away. So we’ll take a draw and move on to Dundee next week.”
Across his two terms as Hearts manager, Robbie Neilson has now faced Rangers six times and lost just once, but he and his players know that being able to survive among the league’s elite depends just as keenly on their ability to impose their superiority when faced with the likes of the Dens Park side.
“It’s a work in progress,” Kingsley added. “We changed to this new shape at the end of last season and we are working hard on it in training and we feel we are getting better with it every week.
“And that unbeaten run breeds confidence, these late goals breed confidence.
“We’ve got a great bunch of characters in that changing room, we never know when we are beaten.
“We know we can create chances with our style of play, we can enforce that on teams. We did that here at times so hopefully we can carry that on.”
After John Lundstram’s 40th minute screamer broke the deadlock, both sides had chances to add to the scoring but, in goals, Craig Gordon and then Allan McGregor proved defiant, until Gary Mackay-Steven’s late corner left the Rangers keeper flapping and gifted Craig Halkett the chance to head home the equaliser to strengthen Hearts’ credentials.
“We had a great result against Celtic the first day of the season so we knew we could compete at the top level,” said Kingsley.
“In the cup game against Celtic we saw we still had a bit to go even though we held our own at times. But here I felt we were a different team and I think we have taken another few steps forward in terms of our composure, our willingness to play, our belief we can get something from these games.”
They did that despite their manager being absent for the final exchanges. Furious that Juninho Bacuna was only yellow carded despite wrapping his hands around Kingsley’s throat, Neilson’s admonishment of the officials saw him red carded and meant he was out of view, in the tunnel, when Halkett’s header found the net.
“The ball was going out of play so I was trying to get the ball back. It was just the heat of the moment, emotion, one of those things,” explained the Hearts defender, who was also yellow carded for pushing his aggressor away. “I was surprised when it happened at first, but I just got on with it.
“I wasn’t happy when he did it and I raised my hand after it in a bit of a reaction. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that either, but I think you are entitled to when someone grabs your throat.
“I was just so happy that soon after that we managed to get an equaliser.”
Advocating for a red card for Bacuna, Neilson described it as a “stonewaller” but opined that when “you come to these places you are not going to get the decisions”.
And, just one game on from Hibs’ Ryan Porteous’ red card for what Gerrard had fumed was a ‘wild tackle, a leg-breaking tackle’ the man on the receiving end of that challenge, Joe Aribo, was fortunate to escape with a yellow following a very similar lunge on Hearts’ Cammy Devlin.
“I saw him on the ground, and I heard the noise of the tackle but I didn’t see it,” admitted Kingsley. “The ball was coming across the pitch but when I turned back around I saw him lying on the ground. Cammy is a right strong lad. Even though he is small he is as tough as they come. So it must have been bad to keep him down on the ground.”
But on a day when the league lead was at stake and reputations and desire were being tested, Kingsley admitted it was a really tough match.
“Tackles were going in and we wanted to make sure we were up for the challenge and not just lying down. We wanted to enforce our game on them.”
Nine games in, and with little ground conceded, Hearts have shown their ability to mix it with the big boys.