“We made it a bit difficult for ourselves but we found a way to win and that’s the sign of a good team,” said Perry Kitchen. “These kind of wins are the ones that we will remember at the end of the year. A 5-1 win is great but the way we stuck together, stayed focused and didn’t give up was huge.”
While the focus was back on the Old Firm in the lead-up to the campaign, many of those who looked beyond that saw only Aberdeen as a challenger to the duopoly, but Hearts’ sights remain fixed on bettering last season’s showing and even giving defending champions Celtic a run for their money, according to the American midfielder.
“We know we have to go and do the job. But, definitely, I mean, that’s our goal right? We’re not, at the start of the season, saying we want to just come in third place. You want to win trophies. We know [Celtic] are a great side, but that’s the goal for sure.”
Left out of Jurgen Klinsmann’s latest USA squad for the upcoming internationals, the disappointment is obvious but the outcome of Saturday’s match is a reminder that hard work reaps rewards.
Callum Paterson was the first man on the scoresheet, rising well to bullet a header home from a Sam Nicholson corner. That was in the 17th minute and gave the visitors the chance to push on, but Thistle are not going to be willing lambs to the slaughter for anyone this term. They gave Aberdeen a tough match last weekend and left the pitch on Saturday unhappy that for a second successive week they had taken on one of last term’s top teams and were unlucky not to take something from the 90 minutes.
They came ever so close against Robbie Neilson’s men, having played a carefully plotted counter-attacking game. They equalised after 55 minutes, when Liam Lindsay headed into Jack Hamilton’s goal despite a goal-line scramble to deny him, and the game ebbed and flowed, with the likes of Chris Erskine in the mood to make life tricky for Hearts.
The direct, swift breaks upfield called for some timely interventions by John Souttar, who was a stubborn and powerful presence at the centre of the Hearts rearguard, getting across to make saving tackles or, on more than one occasion, simply launching his body between the effort and his goal, a dogged one-man forcefield.
“John is a great player,” said Kitchen, grateful for his team-mate’s contributions. “It is hard to believe. What is he, 19? That’s ridiculous. He definitely has the talent, the size and the athleticism and the passing ability to really do well here. He is a great talent with a great mentality, which is huge the higher you go. It’s only a matter of time for him [before he plays for the Scotland first team]. He is a great player.”
Tony Watt was the ultimate hero, though, popping up to make the best of a clearance that ricocheted off Kitchen in the dying minutes of the game. Pouncing on it, he disregarded the tightness of the angle to slot the winner beyond Tomas Cerny.
“It was coming for him,” said the midfielder. “He hadn’t quite found the net yet, but to do it in that fashion, I am really happy for him. It’s a huge result.”