AFTER a tense second half in which their side fell well short of their own exacting standards, the 88th minute saw the sizeable band of travelling Hearts supporters finally relax enough to articulate what this afternoon could mean to the football club, roaring: “We are going up. We. Are. Going. Up.”
Scorer: Hearts - Keatings 25
Head coach Robbie Neilson, in typically coy fashion, was rather more reserved, predictably batting away the suggestion that his side have one hand on the trophy.
“Hibs have hit a fantastic spell of form recently and Rangers are a huge club who could invest in January. There is a long road to go,” he pointed out.
Nevertheless it is hard to shake the feeling that yesterday was a pivotal afternoon in Scotland’s second tier as Hearts opened up a mammoth 15-point lead.
A solitary James Keatings strike was enough to secure a pivotal triumph for the capital club, who will bring in the bells as the only undefeated side in British senior league football.
Meanwhile, not only were Rangers humbled 4-0 at the hands of Hibs, but the abject manner of their defeat makes the notion of them mounting a credible title challenge in the new year seem far-fetched.
Hibs are playing some marvellous football at the moment and look a match for their city rivals after finding their feet under their impressive head coach Alan Stubbs. However, their sloppy start, and consequent 19-point gap to Hearts, looks too big to bridge.
Not that you would know from speaking Hearts’ ever-pragmatic boss.
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“We are always aware of what the score is in games involving Rangers,” he noted after watching his side register a 16th win in 18 league matches.
“It was great for the players to be sitting there 12 points clear – and know that if they got a win they would go 15 clear and 19 ahead of Hibs. That is a great cushion to have at this stage in the season.
“However, it can easily be eaten away and we must make sure we prepare properly for the Hibs game, then Dumbarton and Rangers. They are three huge games.
“I don’t agree that we are guaranteed to be champions. We can only look after ourselves. If we win the rest of our games, we will win the league.”
The travelling support at Almondvale was estimated at 7,500 – and while their journey entailed a mere hop along the M8, they made up one of the largest away followings in Britain during the festive period. They certainly arrived in West Lothian in buoyant mood following Rangers’ embarrassing capitulation in the capital.
Adam Eckersely, who was a constant threat down the left flank all afternoon, delivered a sumptuous cross to the back post for Keatings, only for the in-form striker to somehow direct his shot wide from point-blank range.
With the visitors starting at an almighty pace, a Hearts opener was already looking like an inevitability, and it seemed destined to arrive after 12 minutes when Kyle Jacobs barrelled into the back of Holt inside the box.
Referee John McKendrick immediately pointed to the spot and the Keatings scampered off to retrieve the ball. However, Darren Jamieson has a hard-earned reputation as an expert in the art of stopping spot-kicks, boasting a club record of five penalty saves from eight faced last term, and his aptitude was illustrated again as he managed to dangle his left leg in the path of Keatings’ penalty and divert it away from goal.
Unperturbed by their early profligacy, Hearts claimed the lead after 25 minutes. The energetic Eckersley stretched to send King free down the left flank and the young winger showed composure and vision to deliver a pinpoint cross to the back post where Keatings finally got the better of Jamieson from point-blank range.
Alexander finally had cause to dirty his gloves just prior to half-time, with the towering Jordan White engineering space for a shot inside the Hearts boss. The former Scotland international dealt with the effort admirably, parrying the powerful drive wide of the post.
Hearts’ performance in the second period was proving far inferior to their first-half exertions. However, Nicholson did force a low save from Jamieson on the break after latching on to a low Callum Paterson cross.
Despite Livingston enjoying the territorial advantage and forcing several goal-mouth scrambles, Hearts still boasted the best chance of the second half, with Prince Buaben crashing a header against the post from six yards.
“I thought we were very unlucky against a team who will, as far as I’m concerned, win the league,” said Livi boss Mark Burchill, rather more candidly than his opposite number.
“Undoubtedly, Hearts are going to win the league. They have the best team, the best manager and the best tactics. They are going to win the league.”
Livingston: Jamieson; Fordyce, Mensing, Gallagher, Rutherford (Ogleby 85); Ky Jacobs (Praprotnik 85), O’Brien; Mullen, Glen, McKenna (Hippolyte 45); White.
Hearts: Alexander; Paterson, Ozturk, Wilson, Eckersley; Gomis, Buaben; King, Holt (Pallardo 59), Nicholson; Keatings (Oliver 68).
Referee: J McKendrick. Attendance: 8,178.
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