THERE will be few teams relishing trips to Tynecastle given Hearts’ proficiency when it comes to collecting maximum points from encounters there, but the worrying fact for those attempting to catch them at the top of the Championship is that the evolution is nowhere near complete, according to those involved.
Hearts 2-0 Alloa
Scorers: Hearts - Keatings (16), Paterson (29)
Against Alloa, the Gorgie side tried new tactics and still came away with a comfortable win – the ninth victory in nine league games at home this season. But afterwards, their head coach, Robbie Neilson, said there was still some way to go in their ongoing journey of self-improvement, while full-back Callum Paterson warned that everyone at the club is determined to increase the performance level in their quest to protect their unbeaten record in the league.
“In the past, we have had the defence of being young and we were expected to grow into the game,” said the 20-year-old. “But we are all experienced professionals now and we are going to constantly improve by winning games.
“There will always be a wee bit of pressure, but nothing massive. We go out there and focus on our own game, and that has worked pretty well so far. There’s no point worrying about other teams now.”
They may not fret about the opposition but, in contrast, few will negotiate 90 minutes against Neilson’s men without some cause for consternation.
Alloa manager Barry Smith took pride from the fighting spirit of his side, who refused to lie down, but the fact they created precious little in an attacking sense, apart from one shot off the post, combined with the way their defensive frailties were exposed at both Hearts goals, signals just how tough it is proving for teams to find a way to beat the promotion favourites.
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“It was comfortable but not because they lay down or anything like that – it was just a good team performance,” said Paterson. “This is proving to be a really hard place for teams to come and we love playing here.
“The fans are on our side all the time and it is a horrible place for other teams to come. We are enjoying it and looking to stay unbeaten here for the rest of the season.
“To have a 100 per cent home record in the league at the turn of the year is a wonderful achievement, although the stats aren’t something we pay too much attention to.”
They are favourable, though. Nine points clear with a game in hand, they could extend that to 12 points if they can win their game in hand, away to Cowdenbeath tomorrow night.
The fact they were able to ease off slightly in the latter stages of the match against Alloa on Saturday means they have matured enough to consider the bigger picture, conserving some energy for their trip to Central Park, while never releasing their grip on the three points.
“They [Cowdenbeath] got a great result away from home on Saturday, so they will be high on confidence but we can take three points and keep the momentum going,” said Paterson. “It’s not that difficult because we take a huge amount of fans wherever we go.
“From a player’s point of view, that constant chanting and support helps keep you motivated, regardless of the surroundings.
“It will, of course, be a wee bit different on a Tuesday night in Cowdenbeath, with the wind blowing and freezing conditions, but we are prepared for that and we have proved this season that we have the class to perform in any conditions.”
Motivation is in plentiful supply for a side who are myopic in their desire for a swift return to the top flight. So too is confidence, while the extra training sessions give them the ability to maintain a tempo and workrate few can equal.
Which is why Saturday’s win was rarely in doubt. Certainly not from the 16th minute, when a quick turnover saw Prince Buaben win possession and release Miguel Pallardo and James Keatings to link up, with the latter providing the composed finish.
The second goal came in the 29th minute, courtesy of Paterson he made the run to the near post to turn home a Jamie Walker cutback from the byeline. “I had been running up and down that wing for the first half-hour like a headless chicken,” said Paterson.
“But I eventually got the ball to my feet and managed to put it away. Hopefully there will be a few more to come like that.
“I’m usually just a decoy for Jamie but there are good connections there, whether it’s with Jamie, Sam [Nicholson] or Billy [King], with us having come through the youth ranks together. We can build on that and take it to a bigger stage.
“With different players scoring good team goals and constantly picking up wins, it really builds confidence.”
There were more chances and the scoreline could have been even more one-sided but, as they eased off the gas, Hearts knew that battle was won.
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