HEARTS require just three points from their two remaining fixtures to set a new record for Scottish football’s second tier following this deserved, if rather plodding, victory at Tynecastle.
Hearts - 2
Nicholson 34; El Hassnaoui 57
Raith Rovers - 1
Referee: W Collum. Attendance: 15,405
Then again, the outcome should never have been in doubt. Hearts had won all three previous meetings between the clubs this season and Rovers have not prevailed in this fixture since December 1993.
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson admitted: “When you win the league with seven games to go then sometimes the levels can drop a little bit.
“It wasn’t as good as it’s been but it was still better than it was against Alloa or Hibs. Three months ago if we’d come in at the end with a 2-1 win we’d have been delighted because we were going for the title and desperate for points.
“Today everyone is a little bit flat because we haven’t hit the standards that we’ve set for ourselves but that shows where we are at the moment: expectation levels are so high.
“In a way that’s a good thing but we need to enjoy these victories because there won’t be as many of them next year.”
Neilson freshened up his side, handing a first start to former Rangers goalkeeper Scott Gallacher and giving game time to peripheral players such as Soufian El Hassnaoui, Kevin McHattie and Kenny Anderson.
Even so, the champions looked the more purposeful of the two sides and captain Danny Wilson directed a header over the bar from Jamie Walker’s driven corner.
Rovers defended obdurately though, and the home support had little to cheer during the opening exchanges other than the earlier events at the national stadium.
Osman Sow and Sam Nicholson combined to tee up a shooting opportunity for Anderson but, too anxious to make an impression, he snatched at the opportunity and scuffed his effort wide.
Calum Elliot used to ply his trade at Tynecastle but he blazed yards over from Ross Callachan’s cutback midway through the first half, an execution which effectively illustrated why he now hangs his clothes in the away dressing room.
Mostly, though, Rovers appeared more concerned with damage limitation than inflicting some of their own.
Full-back Callum Paterson had a reasonable claim for a penalty turned down when he was sent tumbling.
Referee Willie Collum may have been playing the advantage rule because the ball fell kindly for Walker but he drove the ball against the legs of the advancing Kevin Cuthbert.
That near miss seemed to galvanise the hosts, however, and they finally broke the deadlock with a well-crafted goal. Sow once again played a key role in the build-up, holding the ball before releasing it into the path of Nicholson, who sidestepped his marker before drilling the ball, left-footed, behind Cuthbert from 12 yards.
“That’s my fifth of the season,” said the midfielder. “I’ve scored more with my left foot, even though I’m right-footed – I’m never going to shoot with my right foot again!”
Ryan Conroy squandered Rovers’ best first-half opening when he spooned a shot over from good position after being picked out by Mark Stewart’s cross.
Hearts continued to be the dominant force after the break and they deservedly doubled their advantage in the 57th minute.
Soufian El Hassnaoui sidefooted home from 15 yards after Paterson had reached the byline and pulled the ball back into the path of the Moroccan.
Neilson immediately gave Sean McKirdy his league debut, sending the 17-year-old on in place of Anderson but Rovers surprised the home side (and, perhaps, themselves) when they reduced the leeway midway through the second half.
Barrie McKay supplied the pass and Elliot atoned for his earlier miss by beating Gallacher low to his right from the far corner of the penalty area.
Even then, Rovers always looked more like falling further behind than drawing level and they were fortunate to see a cross-shot from Walker rebound to safety off the far post.
Cuthbert also did well to deflect a shot from substitute Gary Oliver behind for a corner while Walker screwed a shot behind from a good position. Gallacher made his first save of the afternoon seven minutes from the end, diving to his left to turn over a rising drive from Elliot.
Rovers manager Grant Murray said: “When they scored their second goal it could have gone to four or five – and Hearts have already racked up ten here this season.
“But we showed character to battle on and pull one back and we had a real go at them.
“It’s been a real experience having Hearts, Hibs and Rangers in this division this season and that will never happen again.”
Hearts: Gallacher; Paterson, Ozturk, Wilson, McHattie; Nicholson (Keatings 68), Anderson (McKirdy 58), Gomis, Walker, Sow (Oliver 68), El Hassnaoui. Subs not used: Hamilton, McKay, Zeefuik, McGhee.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert; Thomson, Watson, Barr, McKeown; McKay (Vaughan 86), Callachan, Moon (Fox 60), Conroy; Stewart (Nade 80), Elliott. Subs not used: McGurn, Hill, Anderson, Scott.