EVERYONE is mindful of the gap. Following the weekend endeavours, Hearts are now 20 points clear of their nearest Championship rivals and with only a dozen games remaining, time is running out on anyone still harbouring any thoughts of challenging.
But while the finishing line is in sight, the match at Tynecastle on Saturday reminded Hearts that getting over it will require effort and nerves of steel.
For the second week in succession the team helping them bookend the second tier made Robbie Neilson’s men scrap for the three points. It wasn’t pretty but at this stage of a season where they have entertained more often than not, it didn’t matter.
“If we have to win ugly we have to do that, it’s a battle,” conceded goalkeeper Neil Alexander, who expected to be fighting for the runners-up spot when he swapped Ibrox for the capital in the summer and admits he is relieved at the way things have panned out. “I thought we played in patches but it was untidy at times. At the end of the season when we look back we’ll say that was a tough game and a great three points.
“We don’t think the league is over and we’re looking forward to every game trying to pick up three points. It’s a great challenge and there is still a lot of hard work to be done.”
His first-half save from Jordan White was as vital as Jamie Walker’s 40th-minute winner. The only goal of the match, it was described as ‘lucky’ by Livingston manager Mark Burchill but he created his own luck with the initial run into the box. Having lost control, Walker benefitted when the ball bounced off defender Declan Gallagher and back into his path before he coolly finished past Livy keeper Darren Jamieson.
It was welcomed by a sell-out home crowd, who recognised their players were shy of top form but did not want to waste the opportunity to extend their lead at the top following Hibs’ win over Rangers on Friday.
“There was definitely pressure on us,” said Alexander. “When your rivals drop points it’s important that you pick up maximum points. But I don’t think we let it affect us. You could feel the nerves out there, I thought we handled it really well.
“People forget we have a very young squad and there is a lot of pressure put on those young boys week-in, week-out and they’ve handled it fantastically well. The expectation is there and we’ve set that high standard ourselves. We have to live up to that and if we don’t, the fans give us a wee bit of stick. But the boys can handle that no problems. The fans are fantastic and get behind us at the right time.
“It’s been phenomenal this season from minute one, from where the club was at the end of last season to now, it’s a phenomenal story.”
That positivity and togetherness is in contrast to the mess the former Rangers goalie left behind in Govan at the club he still considers the biggest threat to Hearts’ title ambitions.
“Hibs are there and I’m not going to disrespect Hibs but I definitely still see Rangers as our rivals, I don’t think you can ever discount Rangers. I know it’s a very tough club to play for. There is an expectancy. Unfortunately for Rangers there are things happening off the pitch as well that’s maybe adding to it. I really do feel for Kenny McDowall and I feel for the boys that I still know at the club, they’ll be hurting and it’s tough for them.
“I said at the start of the season that I thought Rangers would be favourites and I thought they would walk it. I thought the play-offs would be our best chance but credit to us, Robbie, the coaching staff and the players for what we’ve done. We’re there not because Rangers have had a bad season, we’re there because we deserve to be there. The table does not lie. I’m really enjoying my football. It’s given me a new lease of life.
“Maybe I’m glad I’m not at Rangers anymore. I loved the club and my time there but with the way this season has gone, maybe things have fallen right for me.”