FOR Hearts supporters, the celebrations which marked their club’s first league title success in 35 years were laced with a large dollop of schadenfreude on Saturday.
The significance of winning the Championship and securing automatic promotion in such emphatic fashion is about to be underlined over the next three weeks.
While Robbie Neilson’s players are looking out the beachwear, their two high-profile rivals in the second tier this season go into the nerve-jangling mix with Queen of the South and the second-bottom Premiership club for the remaining top-flight spot.
“You’re staying down with the Hibees” was just one of the gleeful chants aimed at the travelling Rangers support on Saturday after two goals in the last eight minutes by substitute Género Zeefuik rescued a 2-2 draw for Hearts and allowed them to end an outstanding season on a suitably positive note.
For Rangers, the result proved irrelevant in any case as Hibs’ win at Falkirk ensured the Easter Road club of runners-up spot and one fewer tie in the play-offs. It consigns Stuart McCall’s side to a quarter-final showdown with a Queen of the South side who took seven points off them in the regular season.
Few would predict the outcome of the forthcoming six-match series with any confidence and Hearts striker James Keatings does not envy those involved.
“I played in the play-offs last season for Hamilton Accies,” said Keatings. “Towards the end of the regular season you get tired but you have to carry on. People start picking up injuries and it starts dragging out.
“This season, we did it in style at Hearts by winning the Championship by 21 points so the play-offs didn’t really feature as a possibility for us. But I know how those going into it will be feeling. They’ll be tired, physically and mentally, and it will be tough. Really tough.
“Last season when we went into the play-offs at Hamilton we had a few injuries. I was injured myself and was trying to get back fit. It’s hard at the end of the season when you’re looking forward to getting your rest and you’ve got another run of games.
“It’s not easy as they are all high-pressure games. You’re fighting for something. The Championship club will see the last game as their cup final. But the team from the Premiership, they’re fighting for their lives, and it’s horrible if you lose it.”
Keatings, who helped Hamilton beat Falkirk and Hibs to win last year’s play-offs, believes the Hearts fans could be proved right in predicting failure for both Rangers and Hibs this time.
“I’ve had a weird feeling all along about Queen of the South,” he said. “I think they’re a good side and they’ve proved that against Rangers and Hibs this season. I’m sure they can cause an upset.
“The key to getting through the play-offs is your togetherness and team spirit. You need a good dressing room with everyone pushing each other on. You want competition on the training field and everyone fighting for it.”
Rangers looked set to record what would at least have been a morale-boosting victory over the champions on Saturday when they forged a 2-0 half-time lead.
Darren McGregor’s 32nd minute opener, heading home a Nicky Law free kick, came against the run of play after Hearts had started with greater energy and displayed superior speed of thought and movement in their play.
The goal settled Rangers who doubled their lead eight minutes later, Kenny Miller tapping in from Richard Foster’s cross as the visitors countered swiftly when Hearts had a penalty claim refused after Osman Sow had gone down under Cammy Bell’s challenge.
With manager Robbie Neilson sent to the stand in the wake of the goal, apparently for shouting at a Rangers player rather than contesting what he accepted was a good decision not to award a spot-kick, Hearts’ trophy day appeared in danger of falling a little flat.
But they rallied strongly after the break, probing eagerly for a way back into a contest which should have been put beyond them when their former skipper Marius Zaliukas sent a free header wide from close range in the 76th minute.
Hearts’ persistence was rewarded six minutes later when Zeefuik guided a picture-book header from Morgaro Gomis’s cross beyond Bell’s left hand. The big Dutch striker, in probably his final appearance for the club, then sent the home support into full-on party mode when he buried home a close-range shot from Callum Paterson’s 90th minute flick-on.
“The equaliser sums up our season,” added Keatings, who also appeared as a substitute. “At 2-0 down I was sitting on the bench and still had a weird feeling that we weren’t going to get beat. I thought there would be another twist and Género came up with the goods with two great finishes.
“We won the title a few weeks ago and wanted the trophy there and then. But obviously we weren’t going to get it until the last game. We were just waiting and waiting. When it finally arrived it was just great for everyone to get their hands on it.
“That’s two years in a row I’ve been promoted in two different ways. Both were amazing but this one was better because I got my hands on a medal which is what every player wants. This is the first in my career and it’s amazing for me.”
As Neilson and director of football Craig Levein look to reshape Hearts’ squad for their top-flight return next season, Keatings is among those whose future at the club is in some doubt. He has not been a regular in the side in the second half of the season and would be allowed to move on if he wished.
“I’ve still got a year left on my deal,” said the 23-year-old former Celtic youngster. “The manager has said I’m still wanted here. Every player wants to play every week. I’m the same and I’ve spoken to the manager about it.
“New faces will come in but I’m not scared of that. I need to think of myself. I’ve loved my time at this club and the fans have been amazing. I can’t thank them enough . Now we just have to wait to see what happens in the summer.”