IT IS a measure of how comfortably Hearts have eased to the Championship title this season that their sights have, for some time, been set on adding a record points and goals tally to the league trophy and resulting promotion back to the Premiership that have long since been secured.
They may have laboured to this victory over a Cowdenbeath side whom head coach Robbie Neilson confessed afterwards had deserved better than losing to an injury-time Brad McKay penalty but, in overhauling the previous best set by capital rivals Hibernian in season 1998-99, the runaway champions ensured a remarkable campaign will be remembered in the history books of Scottish football as well as Gorgie folklore.
A century of goals will now elude them, but that Hearts have been able to rack up an astonishing 90 points in a division also containing their city foes and Rangers is testament to a team that is as high on never-say-die spirit and determination as it is on skill and cutting edge. While some of the latter qualities were absent at Central Park on Saturday, the doughtiness that has earned them countless points through the campaign was fully in evidence when Jamie Walker dug deep and was bundled over by Colin Marshall for the game’s defining moment with 90 minutes having come and gone.
One more assignment faces the team, with third-placed Rangers the last-day opponents on Saturday, when Hearts will seek to add some extra shine to the silverware they will finally get their hands on. It would be a fitting finale if Neilson’s side could sign off with one last win, a victory that would ironically also earn Hibs second place after the Easter Road team’s defeat by Rangers last month clinched Hearts the title.
“We’ll get the cup this week, so we want to go and not dampen the celebrations,” said striker James Keatings. “But Rangers will be wanting to dampen it. With them winning the last time at Ibrox [2-1 on 5 April], we want to go and put our stamp on this match and show why we’re champions.”
Whether Keatings, who was heartily welcomed by supporters as a second-half substitute against Cowdenbeath, is to be around to enjoy the fruits of being champions remains to be seen. With skipper Danny Wilson moving on, Adam Eckersley not being awarded a new contract and match-winner McKay having penned a pre-contract agreement to join St Johnstone for next season, as well as the return of on-loan striker Género Zeefuik to the Netherlands and possible interest in Walker, Hearts will have to recruit cleverly again this summer. They may not be starting again from scratch, but the Tynecastle side will be keen not to lose the momentum they have built.
Keatings has proved a key performer at times this term, particularly in the depth of winter when Osman Sow and Souffian El Hassnaoui were both incapacitated with injury. The 23-year-old scored in six of eight games in December and January but confirmed he has been forewarned of the battle he faces to get into the starting line-up in the Premiership and knows he is free to leave if he chooses. Having left top-flight-bound Hamilton Accies last year, however, the former Celtic youngster indicated he is not quite ready to give up on his ambitions of playing at a higher level.
“The gaffer has said there will be competition for places and I wouldn’t say anybody is the number one at any club,” said the 23-year-old. “There’s going to be places to fight for.
“That’s two years I’ve played in the Championship and scored goals and I’d say I’ve proved myself at this level. I want to go to the next level and give myself the best chance of proving myself there. I’m a fighter, so if I’m here I’m going to fight for my place.
“I’m a Hearts player and that’s the way it is. I’ve still got a year left on my contract and until that finishes, unless anything else happens, I’m going to play for Hearts.”
Although Keatings is keen not to have another season in the Championship, that is exactly what Cowdenbeath crave. They took the lead on Saturday after just 13 minutes with a smartly-worked goal by Marshall but could only hold on for 20 minutes until Callum Paterson, fielded as an auxiliary target man in a long-ball game plan that did not quite work for Hearts and was abandoned in the second half, nodded in the equaliser.
McKay’s late winner was cruel but did not affect the Fife side’s battle against relegation. With a draw or defeat they would have been left facing a final-day decider with Alloa. Currently third from bottom, a point above both basement side Alloa and second-bottom Livingston, a win will be good enough, while a draw will also do if Livingston lose at home to Queen of the South.
Cowdenbeath goalkeeper Robbie Thomson was in inspired form against Hearts, motivated further by painful memories of February’s 10-0 thrashing at Tynecastle, and is optimistic of success against the Wasps.
“It will be a nervy game,” he admitted. “It’s a big one for both clubs, for finances and players’ contracts and stuff like that. But you’ve just got to put that to one side and remember it’s a game of football. It’s whoever handles the pressure best.
“We didn’t really need any more motivation against Hearts. The gaffer could have said absolutely nothing to us before the game.
“It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever felt in football after the [10-0] game. But to bounce back and to show, personally, that I could put in a good performance, and the team could put in a good performance, shows we’ve got some characters in the team.
“We won’t accept that ever again and now we move on and look to Saturday now.”