Hearts looking comfortable front-runners

KRIS Boyd had questioned whether Championship rivals Hearts had the bottle to cope with the burden of leading the title race from the front.

Hearts substitute Dale Carrick, arms aloft, celebrates his second goal against Cowdenbeath. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Hearts 5-1 Cowdenbeath

Scorers: Hearts - King (15), Walker (48), Sow (55pen), Carrick (79, 87); Cowdenbeath - Gallagher (21)

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Despite dropping a couple of points away to Dumbarton last weekend and coming under even more pressure in the first 45 minutes of their match at Tynecastle on Saturday, Robbie Neilson’s men responded to the doubts by finishing the afternoon with an emphatic 5-1 walloping of Cowdenbeath and extending their advantage over Boyd and his Rangers colleagues to three points.

Winger Jamie Walker said it was no more than people should expect. “We had great backing and you can’t ask for much more than winning 5-1,” he said. “But we should be winning by three or four at home. It was a good day for us with Hibs losing and Rangers drawing. All we can do is keep winning and we will stay top of the table.”

Despite the lopsided scoreline, the rosy outcome had to be earned. The intensity and the high-tempo passing of previous performances were missing in the opening 45 minutes and although the home side had established an early lead, when Danny Wilson played the perfect pass forward in the 15th minute for Billy King, who was able to take the ball down, compose himself and lash it into the net, it looked like that would set Hearts on their way. But Cowdenbeath had given Hibs a fright on the previous weekend and they dished out another to Hearts when they defied their position at the foot of the table and carved out a well-deserved equaliser six minutes later. It was Kudas Oyenuga who was causing problems and he fired in a low drive that goalkeeper Neil Alexander was at full stretch to prevent going into the net. He could not hold it, though, and the inrushing Callum Gallagher jumped at the chance to prod it home. They were surging forward when they could, while defensively they were pressing Hearts quickly and the crowded backline offered the home team few gaps to exploit.

When King was through on goal midway through the half, Cowdenbeath’s Marcus Fraser was there to make a wonderful block, while goalkeepr Robbie Thomson was also in the kind of form that deserved better than the eventual rout. He pulled off a superb save to keep out an Osman Sow drive from outside the box.

The fact they went in at half-time with the score even was probably fair. Hearts were missing the influence of Prince Buaben in the middle of the park and the adventure and inventiveness of young Sam Nicholson on the wing, while too many of the guys who were playing were performing below par against a team who were making it tough for them.

“The manager wasn’t happy at half-time because it wasn’t good enough for Hearts but in the second half we came out all guns blazing,” said Walker, who grabbed a goal just three minutes after the restart and then earned his side the penalty that gave them their third and really got things rolling.

“After the first-half performance we were just delighted to get the three points in the end.”

The 48th minute goal was a header, which looped into the far corner of the net after he got on the end of an Adam Eckersley cross.

“I think it’s the first header I have ever scored actually, but obviously I’m delighted to get a goal,” said Walker, who has had to bide his time in recent weeks but is hoping he has done enough to be included in the starting line-up when his side travel to Celtic Park on Wednesday for their League Cup tie.

“Sam Nicholson and Billy King have been doing well and I have been just waiting for my chance. I was delighted to score and win the penalty. I think everyone wants to play in this one but obviously the gaffer picks the team and he has options.

“Prince Buaben will be back and Dale Carrick came on and scored two on Saturday, so everyone has to fight for his place. Soufian El Hassnaoui also got on so it shows we have strength in depth and hopefully it will help us pick up points as we go along.”

It did on Saturday, with several players weighing in with goals and plenty of options on the bench.

Walker was chopped down by Darren Brownlie to earn Sow the chance to slot away the 54th minute penalty. It was an award disputed by Cowdenbeath manager Jimmy Nicholl, but Walker was definite.

“I’m convinced it was a penalty and it was a great time to get it as it put us 3-1 up,” he said. “When you are 2-1 up, the game is still in the balance, but the third goal kind of kills it off and it let us play with a bit more freedom.”

They certainly did that and, in the 79th minute, Sow played in substitute Carrick for a shot on the turn which he lashed past Thomson from the edge of the area. The speedy striker was a real menace to a visiting defence that had long-since lost its way and he could have added his second in the 86th minute when his effort from about 20 yards cracked off the bar.

But he was offered a virtual rerun seconds later when he was given space in the same spot and this time got it on target to wrap up the scoring.

Walker knows that Hearts will face a sterner contest in Glasgow, but says it will be a welcome opportunity to test their progress. “It’s a massive game and it will show us how far we have come,” he said.

“We had a few hard games against Celtic last season and obviously it’s going to be tough again. We’re playing the best team in Scotland but we want to give them a good game.”