FOR as low as Alloa Athletic languish in the Championship, they can be stuffy opponents on their own patch. At the Indodrill Stadium this season, they have beaten Hibernian and Rangers, drawn with Queen of the South and, until the weekend, had never lost by more than a single goal.
That all changed when Hearts came to town on Saturday night. Kicking off at 5.30 for the benefit of BBC Alba, on an artificial pitch that has had its share of criticism, it was an awkward test for the Edinburgh club, but two early goals by Miguel Pallardo and James Keatings, as well as two after the break by Jamie Walker and Callum Paterson, secured all three points.
Apart from a brief spell just after the hour mark, when Greig Spence pulled one back for Alloa, it was as comfortable as the scoreline suggests, certainly more so than when Hearts visited in October. On that occasion, they had to wait until the 87th minute for a goal, and that was a deflected free-kick by Adam Eckersley.
Better still, this result moved them 16 points clear of Rangers, who have two games in hand, and swiftly stifled any talk of a slump at Tynecastle. After losing their unbeaten league record against Falkirk seven days earlier, here they were, bouncing back at the first time of asking.
“There were always going to be questions after such a long run, but hopefully that’s proved everybody wrong, coming down here and getting a great result on a hard pitch,” said Paterson. “We’re here to win the league and do our job properly. If we can, we will do it in style as well.”
They started this one with a swagger. So far this season, Pallardo has been a refined presence in front of the back four, tidying up loose balls and distributing them sensibly, but here was another side to his game. Fed the ball by Morgaro Gomis after just five minutes, he was surprised to find no-one closing him down so he stepped into the space and picked out the top right-hand corner from 25 yards.
Five minutes later, Hearts were two up. With his back to goal, Keatings turned Ben Gordon and struck a low shot across the goalkeeper and into the bottom corner. It was his sixth goal in eight appearances for Hearts, his tenth of the season.
Had Stephen Simmons, a former Hearts player, converted the opportunity that came his way between those goals, the game might have been different, but his shot came back off the post and Paterson cleared from the six-yard area.
Instead, Alim Ozturk had a free-kick turned over, Danny Wilson’s shot was saved and Keatings hit the bar as the visitors went in search of a third. Only in the early part of the second half, when their opponents were more competitive, was Hearts’ momentum interrupted. When Spence headed in Mark Docherty’s cross, it looked for a moment as though we might have a game on our hands.
But it was only a moment. Five minutes later, Walker had restored Hearts’ two-goal advantage by picking up a misplaced pass, bursting through a gap in the Alloa defence and slipping it under Craig McDowall. He might have had another when Genero Zeefuik and Eckersley shuttled the ball across the box, but his shot was blocked by the advancing goalkeeper. In the final minute, Hearts grabbed their fourth. Billy King, a substitute, swung in the corner, Paterson outjumped his marker and the header was powerful enough to find the net.
Barry Smith, the Alloa manager, has said a lot this season about not getting the rub of the green, and players wasting their chances, but he had no complaints here. Hearts are the best team in the Championship, which is why they gave Alloa their hardest game.
“When it went to 2-1, I thought we were in the ascendancy, but a mistake makes it 3-1, and the game petered out after that,” said Smith. “Hearts are a good team. We can’t afford to be giving them a two-goal start. All the goals were avoidable but, in general, Hearts were better than us. That’s a basic fact.”