After a tough two weeks it has come to this; Hearts battling for a place in the top six rather than entertaining thoughts of a European slot. But accepting their lot, they went out yesterday intent on ensuring things did not get any worse.
The first of three games that will determine whether they see out the season in the top or bottom half of the division, they got off to a bright start against a Partick Thistle side who looked every inch the relegation fodder they have become.
After five games without a win, the Gorgie side rediscovered their zest in a first half that blew Thistle away, bolstering their mood and undermining their guests already-fragile confidence.
Against a team who have won just one league game on the road this term, two goals in five minutes gave them what already appeared an unassailable lead and when they added a third two minutes before the interval, they knew they could see out the remainder of the match in cruise control.
“I think it is important for our supporters that we finish the season strongly,” said Hearts manager Craig Levein. “And this was the first step in that.
“I didn’t say well done to them at half-time because my experience is if you do that they think they’ve done their job and the game is over.”
Effectively it was, with goals from Kyle Lafferty, Steven Naismith and John Souttar giving the home side a 3-0 interval lead.
After a few poor performances, there was a higher tempo and greater movement as players linked up better, capitalising on Thistle uncertainty and dwindling confidence on the ball.
In the 17th minute, Joaquim Adao played in Don Cowie, who quickly fed the ball through to Naismith, allowing him to help it into the path of Lafferty. The Northern Irishman then took it in on goal and, with Tomas Cerny committing himself, he slotted it low, through the keeper’s legs for his 17th goal of the season.
On-loan Adao continues to show why he was brought to the club and why his manager would love to make the deal a permanent one in the summer, doing so much of the dirty work and breaking down attacks. But he is also proactive and having chased across the park to close down Baily Cargill in the 22nd minute, he made the most of possession, despite a slip. Getting back up he played a cross into Naismith in a central position and he finished to make it 2-0.
It was more a case of when the third goal would come rather than if. It came in the 43rd minute and was another embarrassing one for the visitors, who failed to deal with a Michael Smith long throw and as it dropped in the box they allowed Souttar to get across the face of goal and beat the keeper with an outstreched leg.
“Off the back of a good clean sheet and organised performance last week, we weren’t anywhere near it and the start killed us, admitted the frustrated Thistle manager. “The game was dead and buried by half-time.”
But, for a Thistle side just three points from the foot of the table things could have been even worse, with Abdul Osman fortunate to escape a red card as he charged about like a wrecking ball.
“I’ll leave you to judge that. I don’t know if you can be sent off three times,” said the Gorgie gaffer. Booked in the 15th minute when he felled Danny Amankwaa, the Ghanaian left Joaquim Adao writhing from another lunge in the 27th minute and the majority of observers stunned that he escaped further punishment. Whether Archibald agreed with that or not, he did not send him back out for the second half.
It was as easy a game as hearts could have hoped for, with defender Christophe Berra making the starting line up despite still nursing a bruised ankle and the fans still nursing bruised ambitions.
But for Thistle, who switched personnel as best they could in the second half and at least managed to ensure no more goals were lost it was a sore one and a reminder that they still face a long, hard battle to escape the drop.
“The only positive thing is that it is still in our own hands. But we have got to make sure that we cut out the errors because you can play badly and stay in the game but individual errors kill you.