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Falkirk 0–3 Hearts: Two points from the title

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For this first time in this magnificent season, Hearts could finish the weekend as officially-crowned champions of Scottish football’s second tier. In the (albeit unlikely) event that our noisy neighbours take anything less than three points from Dave King’s Resurgent Rangers Revolution, the title is wrapped up. If Hibs win, the champagne will be on ice until Queen of the South visit Tynecastle next week, where the title can be sealed in front of a sell-out home crowd. As far as Hearts are concerned, the situation is very much win-win.

The fact Hearts could win the title at Easter Road ‘in absentia’ is largely down to the commanding 3–0 victory Robbie Neilson’s men secured over the only team to nab all three points from them this season.

Before yesterday’s encounter, Falkirk’s fortunes against Hearts this season had been mixed to say the least. The first meeting was effectively shooting practice for the Hearts players. Had it not been for Jamie MacDonald and the kind of superhuman goalkeeping display Hearts fans loved him for last season, we may not have had to wait until Cowdenbeath’s second visit to hit double figures.

The 2–1 win at the Falkirk Stadium, meanwhile, was nervier than it should have been given Hearts’ dominance in the first half of that game. And then, of course, came that result. The solitary blotch on the otherwise pristine copy book so far. Of course, Falkirk were fully-deserving of the three points that day and punished Hearts’ sluggishness in a way other teams could not during our *ahem* “bad spell/dip in form/downward spiral [insert other media/Hibs/Rangers sensationalist cliché here]”.

Staying true to his stated aim of keeping the team fresh without making unnecessary wholesale changes, Robbie made three alterations to the side that won in Kirkcaldy earlier in the week. Out went Kevin McHattie, Sam Nicholson and James Keatings. In came Adam Eckersley, Osman Sow and midweek super-sub Jamie Walker.

One thing about Robbie Neilson that has impressed me considerably this season (aside from his immaculate fashion sense and ice-cool demeanour) is his near-flawless knack of identifying the right players for particular opponents. The re-introduction of Sow, Walker and Eckersley had the desired effect, with each player having a hand in at least one of the three goals scored today. Walker in particular has been in scintillating form since the turn of the year and, assuming it continues until the end of the season, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him finish the season ahead of the club’s strikers in the scoring charts.

From the moment Walker netted his 11th goal of the season, Hearts took control and when Genero Zeefuik doubled the advantage early in the second half, the result was never really in doubt. Although Falkirk stepped up the pressure as the game progressed, the closest they came to scoring was through a David McCracken header, which Eckersley was well-placed to clear off the line.

One beneficiary of Neilson’s “horses for courses” approach to games this season has been Keatings. Having carried the lion’s share of the striking burden during the challenging winter period (to great effect I should add) the former Hamilton hitman has found himself on the periphery of the first eleven since Zeefuik was brought in and Sow recovered from injury. If anything, this appears to have whet his appetite for goals even more, with his manager revealing after the game that the striker’s goal is to end the season as the league’s top scorer.

Considering it took him only sixty seconds of game time yesterday to score the third and final goal, this seems like an achievable goal with seven games remaining. Even without a regular place in the starting line-up, Keatings has shown a ruthless goal-scoring instinct to take his chances even when opportunities have been limited to appearances from the bench.

Prior to the Dumbarton game, Robbie Neilson set his target for the week ahead:

“We play Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday this week. The challenge is to get nine points. We haven’t played many midweek games this season so it’s a big challenge to go to Raith and then Falkirk and try to pick up three points there.”

Mission accomplished. With all due respect to Dumbarton and Raith Rovers, most Hearts supporters would be forgiven for seeing the Falkirk game as the potential banana skin, particularly at the end of a busy week of fixtures. However, the team hasn’t reached this stage by giving credence to the cynicism of others. On that note, there would be sweet irony if the actions of our two most vocal challengers were to wrap the league up for Hearts at Easter Road today. Not that Robbie Neilson will be watching:

“Tomorrow morning, I’ll be at Stirling University getting my Pro Licence, with a business management course starting at 9am, so it’ll be very exciting I’m sure. If we win the league tomorrow, great. If it’s the following week at home to Queen of the South, then even better. I’d rather go into the Queens game needing a result if I’m honest.”

Neilson’s professionalism throughout this season has been in stark contrast to the cheap mind games of the chasing pack. Today, he’ll be doing what has worked so well this year: looking after his own game, not looking for handouts from others. It would be a fitting and deserved reward for his efforts, therefore, if the team could seal the title and pop the first cork in celebration at a sold-out Tynecastle next week.

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