AFTER being temporarily usurped by Celtic at the top of the league following their victory at Tannadice, Hearts took little time to reclaim lost ground with another hugely impressive victory yesterday.
Nothing seems to be able to knock Hearts off course at present, not even the potential setback of a missed penalty. Juanma saw his second-half effort well saved by Tomas Cerny but then Sam Nicholson reacted quickly to knock in the rebound.
Juanma atoned shortly afterwards in any case, clipping home number three after Osman Sow’s first-half opener set Hearts on their way to a fifth league win on the spin. Head coach Robbie Neilson is still trying hard to temper expectations but his players are proving unhelpful in the extreme. Admittedly there are far harder tests to come.
However, Hearts can do no more than beat those teams put in front of them for the time being, with an away assignment at Hamilton Accies coming next in the league, following Tuesday’s trip to Forfar Athletic in the League Cup.
Neilson isn’t getting carried away, of course. “Winning games breeds confidence but I still feel that where we are at the moment is still a long way off competing with Celtic,” he said. “We just have to keep taking it day by day and game by game.”
Winning each week in the manner they are doing also encourages comparisons with George Burley’s side of a decade ago. Hearts are still on course to match their eight-game winning start to the 2005-06 league season. Again, Neilson batted this topic away in the easy manner of a man now accustomed to the task.
“I have spoken endlessly about this. We are miles away from that team,” he said, before conceding: “Obviously if we keep winning games there will be comparisons.”
Neilson admitted his side will have to up their game when tougher challenges present themselves, and be even more clinical. “We have to keep trying to improve,” he said. Neilson described yesterday’s performance as “all right – not great, just all right”. Thistle manager Alan Archibald was more justified in being downbeat. “We were very poor,” he said.
The result conveys the impression of a straightforward afternoon for the Tynecastle side, and so it was. But it threatened to be far from so in the opening stages.
Hearts were fortunate that Sow looked in the mood, tracking back when he had to as well as being in the right place at the right time to sweep his side into the lead just before the half-hour mark.
Thistle started brightly to the extent that they managed to restrict a sell-out crowd, the vast majority of which favoured Hearts, to a low murmur.
The 748 Thistle fans looked on with some initial satisfaction. But this hope quickly drained away as Hearts took command. It’s fair to say fewer than 748 Thistle fans remained at the end as Hearts took the applause of an appreciative home support.
The visitors’ initial resistance could not be sustained and Hearts edged ahead in the 29th minute, Callum Paterson challenging Partickgoal John David James Dalrymple keeper Tomas Cerny at a corner before Sow was on hand to knock the ball into the net after it invitingly fell at his feet.
After their promising start, Thistle fell away, badly. Ryan Stevenson looked heavy-legged on his return to Tynecastle. There was scant invention, too little sorcery.
Stevenson was the casualty as Archibald sought to ignite his side, replacing the striker with Steven Lawless only ten minutes after half-time. Stevenson was afforded generous applause from the Hearts fans, perhaps highlighting how little he had done to irritate them.
But then everything seems to be going the way of these Hearts supporters at present. Even when Juanma failed to convert a penalty after Paterson was felled by a lunging challenge from Stuart Bannigan, Nicholson was quickest to react the situation.
Juanma shrugged off the miss to score Hearts’ third with 20 minutes left after out-muscling defender Frederic Frans. He later made way for 16 year-old Callum Morrison, the latest graduate from the Hearts Academy. These are good days to be a Jambo.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, Igor Rossi, Ozturk, Oshaniwa, Sow (King 64), Buaben (McKirdy 74), Gomis, Nicholson, Juanma (Morrison 87), Reilly. Subs not used: McHattie, Hamilton, Oliver, McGhee.
Partick: Cerny, Miller, Seaborne, Frans, Booth, Bannigan, Welsh (Osman 63), Stevenson (Lawless 58), Fraser, Amoo (McDaid 75), Doolan. Subs not used: Scully, Wilson, Hendry, Nisbet.
Referee: John Beaton. Attendance: 16,657