A gruelling examination from an at-times dangerously fired-up Livingston side, a frustrating loss of their natural rhythm, and, in turn, some potentially unnerving howls of derision from their own large travelling support were the main obstacles Hearts had to hurdle in the Almondvale sunshine.
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That they managed to keep their discipline in such unfavourable circumstances and eke out a victory courtesy of late goals from new signing Kenny Anderson and Jamie Walker suggests their 19-point advantage at the top of the Championship will prove unassailable.
The angst endured by Hearts and their supporters for much of the second half might not have manifested itself if referee Brian Colvin had decided to red card Livingston captain Jason Talbot just before half-time while the visitors led 1-0. The defender’s high-boot challenge on Sam Nicholson left the Hearts winger writhing in agony, unable to continue and with his face, as a photo released by the club afterwards would reveal, blemished by studmarks and stitches.
Regardless of intent, Talbot was certainly guilty of recklessness. Even in real time, that much was evident. Yet as Hearts players simmered with rage and their supporters bayed for a red card, Colvin saw fit only to flash yellow at the relieved Livingston skipper.
Afterwards, a photo of the tackle itself went viral on social media and Talbot will now have to face the wrath of the Hearts support when Livingston meet the league leaders again at Tynecastle this Saturday. “It was a bad one,” said Walker. “I thought it should have been a red card.”
Head coach Robbie Neilson, not usually one to get worked up about particular incidents, said: “Sam’s going to be alright, but it wasn’t the best tackle from the boy. That’s what sometimes happens when teams are desperate to beat you – they can cross the line. I’ve let the referee know my views on it.”
Director of football Craig Levein tweeted: “Tackle on Sam takes a bit of explaining to say the least.”
Talbot declined a request to explain himself so it was team-mate Burton O’Brien who was left with the thankless task of trying to make a case for the defence. “I know Jason’s an aggressive player, but in the heat of the moment, I genuinely did think he went for the ball,” said the Livingston midfielder. “I don’t think there was any malice in it. If you’re going to stop and freeze pictures of every incident throughout the season, you’d be here all day. The referee dealt with the incident at the time, so all we can do is move on.”
For Livingston, moving on involves a trip to Tynecastle for another crack at the league leaders this Saturday. The last time the Lions visited Gorgie, they lost five goals. Another rout looked on the cards when Genero Zeefuik fired in a delightful opener from 20 yards after just four minutes on Saturday. However, Hearts were unable to build on this early booster and were soon knocked out of their rhythm by both foul and fair means from a Livingston side who ended the match with six yellow cards but could be heartened by a display that belied their status as the league’s bottom-placed team.
After they equalised through a tap-in from former Hearts youngster Craig Sives early in the second half, the game could have gone either way. The travelling support grew audibly agitated, with various Hearts players berated for misplaced passes or perceived bad decisions. “We definitely had them rattled,” said O’Brien. “They’re a good team but we saw that they’re human like everyone else because if you put pressure on them, you can get the ball off them.”
When substitute Billy King passed the ball out of play just moments after coming on, it summed up Hearts’ afternoon up to that point. Yet it was King who would give the league leaders the impetus to get over the line in the last eight minutes. First he delivered the cross for debutant Anderson, who had replaced Nicholson at the interval, to convert a fine header. Then, two minutes later, Hearts went in for the kill when Walker ran on to a pass from King and drilled a low shot into the far corner.
Livingston gave the scoreline a more accurate reflection with the last kick when Kyle Jacobs scored a penalty after Brad McKay, who had just come on, was sent off for hauling Myles Hippolyte down in the box.
Walker admitted it was a day when Hearts had to display fighting spirit over flair. “We’ve shown once again that even if we’re not playing well, we can still keep battling away and get late goals,” he said. “We were giving the ball away cheaply and it wasn’t good enough. When the fans are getting agitated, you just need to blank it out. You’ve just got to keep concentrating and hoping the chance comes, and thankfully it did.”
Nine wins from their remaining 13 matches will guarantee Hearts the title. However, Walker refuses to accept that the race is over, with nearest challengers Rangers holding three games in hand and still to face Hearts twice. “To have the points on the board is great, but if Rangers win their games in hand, it’s down to ten points, so it’s not over yet,” he said. “If we keep winning, we know we can’t be caught.”