HEARTS made a mockery of a banner calling for Robbie Neilson’s sacking by recording their third win inside a week - and take another step closer to Europe.
Arnaud Djoum’s first-half goal was sufficient to beat a stuffy Partick Thistle side at Tynecastle, although the hosts had to hold firm in the second half.
Bizarrely, an aeroplane circled above the stadium just after kick-off, trailing a banner with the message: “No style, no bottle, Neilson out.” It appears to be the work of a small minority of disgruntled fans, but nonetheless their club continues to thrive under the stewardship of head coach Neilson and owner Ann Budge.
This result saw Hearts close to within six points of second-placed Aberdeen in the Ladbrokes Premiership. They remain odds-on to reach the qualifying rounds of the Europa League in their first season back in top-flight football. Neilson’s position is certainly not under threat.
Wearing their Foundation of Hearts tribute kit, Hearts kicked off in confident mood after two wins in a week over Kilmarnock and Inverness. The banner appeared in the skies above Tynecastle within seconds of kick-off. Many home supporters responded with boos and, before long, a chorus of “One Robbie Neilson” broke out.
On the field, Thistle certainly weren’t in town to offer a pick-me-up if the Hearts manager required one. They set out to attack with the physical presence of Mathias Pogba the focal point of their attack.
Jamie Walker found himself with the first chance of the afternoon after skipping in behind Gary Miller. He rounded the visiting goalkeeper Tomas Cerny, but his off-balance shot was mis-struck and cleared. Djoum sent a follow-up effort wide.
Thistle then came tantalisingly close to scoring the game’s first goal on 13 minutes. Neil Alexander, the Hearts goalkeeper, pushed Pogba’s header from Steven Lawless’ cross on to his crossbar. Juanma then had the ball in the net at the opposite end but his effort was rightly disallowed as he pushed Liam Lindsay in the back before taking down Alim Ozturk’s long ball.
Igor Rossi’s glancing header from Don Cowie’s corner was brilliantly tipped over by Cerny on 25 minutes. He could do nothing to prevent the first goal from Cowie’s second corner. Djoum rose at the back post to power the midfielder’s delivery into the net with his head from around six yards.
Referee Bobby Madden ignored Hearts’ appeals for a penalty on 37 minutes when Walker fell near the byline under Callum Booth’s challenge. The Tynecastle side were pressing strongly for a second goal at that point. Rossi wasted a fine opportunity by heading Cowie’s cross from the left wide of the target.
Stuart Bannigan’s afternoon ended three minutes before half-time when he seemed to suffer a knee injury trying to close down Alexander. He limped off reluctantly and Thistle had to regroup for the second 45 minutes with Ryan Edwards the replacement. They continued to display uncompromising spirit and tackled tenaciously in an effort to assume control of midfield. Alexander produced a vital stop to hold an effort from distance by the industrious Lawless.
Juanma sent another Cowie cross over the crossbar but Neilson’s side looked slightly tired midway through the second period. Abiola Dauda was introduced in Djoum’s place in the hope of injecting some fresh energy. While it remained 1-0, Thistle always retained hope of forcing an equaliser.
They continued to see plenty of the ball but couldn’t carve open the Hearts back line, which held on to help secure a third successive home win inside a week.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander; L Smith, Ozturk, Souttar, Rossi; Buaben, Cowie; Nicholson, Djoum, Walker; Juanma.
69: Dauda for Djoum
79: McGhee for Rossi
85: Reilly for Juanma
Unused subs: Hamilton, Augustyn, Pallardo, Reilly, McGhee, Zanatta.
Partick Thistle (4-2-3-1): Cerny; Miller, Lindsay, Seaborne, Booth; Osman, Welsh; Amoo, Bannigan, Lawless; Pogba.
45: Edwards for Bannigan
79: Nesbitt for Amoo
83: Doolan for Pogba
Unused subs: Scully, German, Elliott, Fraser.
Referee: Bobby Madden.