HEARTS placed one hand on the Scottish Championship trophy with victory at Falkirk and will become champions should Hibs fail to beat Rangers on Sunday.
The Edinburgh club can now only be caught by their city rivals at the top of the league after goals from Jamie Walker, Genero Zeefuik and James Keatings secured an eighth successive win at Falkirk.
A travelling support of 3493 witnessed a convincing display and some clinical finishing by Robbie Neilson’s side. Osman sow was the standout, particularly in the first half. He created Walker’s goal on 28 minutes and the winger was involved in the move from which Dutchman Zeefuik doubled the advantage shortly after half-time.
Keatings eliminated any doubt about the final result with a third goal just 60 seconds after entering the fray as a substitute. Falkirk were pressed back for large spells of the match as the visitors utilised the attacking threat of Walker, Sow Zeefuik and Billy King to good effect.
However, the home team threatened more in the second period after falling 2-0 behind. What they lacked was some quality in the final third to finish the few clear chances which came their way. The closest they came was David McCracken’s header from a corner which Adam Eckersley headed off the goal line.
The game’s first clear opening arrived on 11 minutes as Zeefuik sprinted on to Sow’s through pass in behind the Falkirk defence. Goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald emerged quickly and produced an excellent block to deflect Zeefuik’s shot away from goal.
Falkirk had the ball in the net on 17 minutes but Taylor Morgan was ajudged offside. Seconds later, the same player wasted a fine opportunity by scuffing a shot wide when through on the Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander.
The hosts would have lamented that chance when Hearts moved ahead on 28 minutes. Sow’s forceful run on the left took him past Kieran Duffie and his clever cutback was converted by Walker, whose shot landed high in the net after ricocheting off MacDonald’s leg.
The former Hearts keeper denied Sow with an impressive one-handed save from Callum Paterson’s low cross. As the half-time whistle sounded with the visitors 1-0 ahead, there was no question the advantage would have been greater but for MacDonald.
Falkirk did succumb to a second Hearts goal within two minutes of the restart, with much of the credit due to left-back Eckersley. His penetrating run down the left teed up Walker for a low cross which was only partially cleared. Waiting as the ball dropped 18 yards from goal was Zeefuik, and he dispatched a powerful left-footed drive into the net.
Peter Houston’s side might have reduced the deficit moments later, but Will Vaulks’ header from Duffie’s cross bounced inches wide of Alexander’s right post. The introduction of David Smith added width to the home side’s right flank and he put some tantalising crosses into the Hearts penalty area to no avail.
From Craig Sibbald’s corner in the 68th minute, McCracken won a header and would have scored but for Eckersley’s clearance off the line. Falkirk then introduced Blair Alston for Vaulks in an attacking change but fell further behind 11 minutes from the end.
Keatings was on the pitch less than a minute when he fastened on to a loping through ball from Miguel Pallardo. The striker steadied himself for a slightly deflected left-footed finish high beyond MacDonald from the inside-right channel.
With that, the game was over. Hearts must now await the outcome of Hibs’ match against Rangers to discover whether they are officially promoted back to the Premiership.
Falkirk (4-4-2): MacDonald; Duffie, McCracken, Grant, Leahy; Taiwo, Kerr, Vaulks, Sibbald; Baird, Morgan.
50: Smith for Taiwo
50: Biabi for Morgan
75: Alston for Vaulks
Unused subs: Bowman, Dick, Maybury, Cooper.
Hearts (4-4-2): Alexander; Paterson, Ozturk, Wilson, Eckersley; Walker, Pallardo, Gomis, King; Sow, Zeefuik.
73: Nicholson for Sow
78: Keatings for Zeefuik
83: Anderson for Walker.
Unused subs: Hamilton, McHattie, El Hassnaoui, McKay.
Referee: Crawford Allan.