Hearts win Championship in quick time

HEARTS became the first senior club in Great Britain to win their league yesterday when Edinburgh rivals Hibernian failed to get the three points they needed against Rangers to keep the outcome of the Championship alive for another week.
Brad McKay, Adam Eckersley and Danny Wilson celebrate outside Tynecastle yesterday. Picture: SNSBrad McKay, Adam Eckersley and Danny Wilson celebrate outside Tynecastle yesterday. Picture: SNS
Brad McKay, Adam Eckersley and Danny Wilson celebrate outside Tynecastle yesterday. Picture: SNS

Goals by Lee Wallace and Kenny Miller saw Hibs lose 2-0 at Easter Road, their first defeat since the turn of the year. They remain in second place, 23 points behind Hearts and now only three ahead of Rangers, who have a game in hand.

Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson, who was at a coaching course in Stirling yesterday, said last week he would prefer if his team clinched the title in their own next match, at home to Queen of the South on Saturday. It is one of a very few occasions this season in which the former full-back’s plans have been thwarted, with his team only suffering one league defeat so far – at home to Falkirk back in January.

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The Gorgie club made amends for that loss on Saturday as they recorded a comprehensive 3-0 win at Falkirk.

Brad McKay, Adam Eckersley and Danny Wilson celebrate outside Tynecastle yesterday. Picture: SNSBrad McKay, Adam Eckersley and Danny Wilson celebrate outside Tynecastle yesterday. Picture: SNS
Brad McKay, Adam Eckersley and Danny Wilson celebrate outside Tynecastle yesterday. Picture: SNS

That result meant Hibs could not afford to lose – but they looked off the pace for much of the game against Rangers, who put an indifferent run of results behind them to record a first win under new manager Stuart McCall.

“Championees you beauty,” Hearts said on their official Twitter account after their return to the Premiership at the first attempt was confirmed. “Congratulations to everyone connected with the club, especially our fans #wedidittogether.”

With seven games still to play, Hearts have a possible maximum of 99 points. They are on course to break the 100-goal mark for the league season, and already have a goal difference of 66.

The key to their success has been the hard work and discipline instilled in them by Neilson, who has hardly put a foot wrong in his debut season in charge of the team.

From the start of the campaign, which began with victory at Ibrox then a home win in the Edinburgh derby, the coach insisted that his players focus on the next match and refuse to be distracted by mind games.

Typically, however, Neilson preferred to give credit to his players, not himself, for their success.

“As a coach, you just want guys who are prepared to work hard to make the best of their ability, and we definitely have that,” he told the club website. “All the coaches and I can do is prepare training and hope the boys buy into it, which they all have done.

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“Even when we’ve won the league, it’s important that we continue to win games.

“We have to play Hibs and Rangers, and it’s vital for us to beat these sides.

“Our mindset is that we must win every game. A club of this stature must not accept less.”

While stressing that dropped points were unacceptable, during the first half of the season Neilson also prepared his squad for how to react to a league defeat when it did come. They have played eight times since that loss to Falkirk, and won every time.

McCall was one of the first to congratulate Neilson and his colleagues yesterday. “First and foremost I would like to congratulate Hearts on an outstanding season and winning the title,” he said. “Robbie and his team have been outstanding all season, so fair play to them.”

Hibs defender Paul Hanlon also acknowledged the success of his city rivals, while stressing that the important thing for himself and his team-mates was to ensure they go up via the play-offs now that their faint hopes of automatic promotion have been extinguished. “I hadn’t even thought about that, to be honest, but that was only a matter of time,” when asked about Hearts’ title triumph after his own team’s defeat.

“They’ve done well through the whole season and have beaten near enough everyone. That’s not something we’re worried about now.

“We’ll just concentrate on ourselves.”

Hearts were relegated last summer at the end of a season which they began with a 15-point penalty and a signing ban as a result of going into administration.

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New owner Ann Budge took them out of administration and appointed Craig Levein as director of football and Neilson as head coach.

This is the second time the club have won Scottish football’s second flight, the first having been in 1980.

Title timeline

HEARTS entered administration on 19 June, 2013 following the slipshod stewardship of Vladimir Romanov, the disastrous collapse leading to a swathe of painful redundancies, a points deduction and, ultimately, relegation to the Championship.

Yesterday, their return to Premiership football was confirmed, completing the rehabilitation of a club whose very existence was threatened little over 21 months ago. Here, we map out Hearts’ road to redemption:

9 May 2014: Self-made IT millionaire Ann Budge buys Hearts for a fee of £2.5 million.

12 May 2014: Previous manager Gary Locke and experienced players Jamie Hamill, Ryan Stevenson and Jamie MacDonald are among those released as Craig Levein is appointed director of football and installs rookie Robbie Neilson as head coach.

13 June 2014: The job of rebuilding Hearts’ decimated squad begins as Morgaro Gomis becomes the first new signing.

10 August 2014: A late Osman Sow goal secures a 2-1 win away to Rangers on the opening weekend of the Championship season.

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17 August 2014: A late Sam Nicholson stunner paves the way for a 2-1 win over Hibs in the first league game at Tynecastle.

20 September 2014: After dropping their first points of the season in a goalless draw at Dumbarton the previous week, Hearts respond with a 5-1 demolition of Cowdenbeath.

11 October 2014: A late Adam Eckersley winner at Alloa maintains winning momentum.

26 October 2014: Ten-man Hearts keep alive their unbeaten start as a 40-yard thunderbolt in stoppage time by Alim Ozturk secures an unlikely 1-1 draw away to Hibs.

22 November 2014: A 2-0 win at home to Rangers puts Hearts in full command of the title race.

24 January 2015: The dream of an “invincible” league campaign ends as Falkirk win 3-2 at Tynecastle.

31 January 2015: Talk of a wobble is banished as Hearts return to form with a 4-1 win at Alloa.

28 February 2015: The rampant Jambos register the biggest league win in their history, thrashing hapless Cowdenbeath 10-0 at Tynecastle.

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21 March 2015: Hearts’ 18th away league match without defeat – a 3-0 win at Falkirk – puts them on the cusp of the Championship title.

22 March 2015: Hearts are champions after nearest challengers Hibs lose to Rangers.