There was a distinct “final day of the season” vibe to proceedings at Tynecastle today. A lap of honour for the players at full-time was preceded by Ann Budge’s thank you speech to the supporters, all of which came after ninety minutes of football that ultimately had no bearing on the rest of Hearts’ season. The sole aim of the day, as far as the home supporters were concerned, was to celebrate.
For a consummate professional like Robbie Neilson, however, the aim was to win. Having officially secured the title without kicking a ball last Sunday, this week provided the first opportunity for supporters to celebrate in the stands. With that in mind, Neilson had insisted earlier in the week that it was the players’ responsibility to mark the occasion with a positive result. And mark it positively they did.
It was always going to be the case that the build-up and anticipation to today’s game would effectively eclipse the football itself. Prior to kick-off, queues could be seen stretching out from the nearby watering holes, which were packed to capacity with buoyant, well-lubricated supporters. Inside the stadium, as Scott Wilson warmed the crowd up with his back catalogue of iconic tunes, supporters decorated the stands (and subsequently the pitch) with a sea of maroon and white balloons, confetti, streamers and toilet roll.
As the players emerged from the visitors’ guard of honour, the ovation from the home supporters was the most rousing and atmospheric I have been a part of in my time following Hearts. The celebrations that followed our recent cup victories were special experiences, but none of them had the same underlying sense of relief as today, which is largely down to the stark turnaround in the club’s fortunes over a relatively short period of time. Not to mention the basic fact that winning a league title over the course of 36 fixtures (29 if you’re good enough to wrap it up earlier) is a hard slog and a remarkable achievement — one in which everyone invests a great deal of time and energy.
Despite Osman Sow’s early opener fuelling the atmosphere further, the game itself eventually petered out into somewhat of an anti-climax and never quite matched the earlier hype. Although many would have loved to see the team take another stride towards the 100-goal mark with a demolition job, it was always going to be difficult against opponents who impressed against Hearts in the previous three encounters and still have plenty to play for themselves.
It was a routine, albeit unspectacular performance from Hearts. Unlike the previous three fixtures between the sides, the men from Dumfries never looked like much of an attacking threat today and rarely had the Hearts back line sweating. Their best chance came in the second half after Neil Alexander parried a long range shot into the path of Derek Lyle, who looked like he wanted to hide away in his favourite tanning booth after missing the open goal from a matter of yards.
With just over twenty minutes left to play, the result was put beyond doubt thanks to an Alim Ozturk free-kick. Having come close to scoring a handful of free-kicks in earlier games this season (prevented from doing so only by the woodwork or spectacular goalkeeping) it was only a matter of time before one of Ozturk’s dead ball efforts found the net. Almost in keeping with the unspectacular nature of the game itself, the successful free-kick merely trickled into the net thanks to a cruel deflection which had taken the ball away from a stranded Zander Clark in the Doonhamers’ goal.
Had it not been for the cheering and singing that greeted the directors, players and coaching staff on the pitch after the final whistle, those inside Tynecastle may very well have heard the sound of shattering glass echo across the Forth from Kirkcaldy. In non-title winning news, Hibs’ defeat away to Raith, coupled with a win for Rangers at home to Cowdenbeath, means the “nearly men” have relinquished their points advantage over their Ibrox counterparts. Only nine points clear of fifth, both teams now sit on 55 points in the race for second place, with Rangers having a game in hand at their disposal. Luckily for the Hibees, that game in hand is against us so should count for very little in the end… *touches wood*
Although Robbie and the players will spend the remainder of the season focusing on their personal objectives, Hearts still have a major part to play in the play-off stakes. With six games to go, three of which involve either Rangers or Hibs, Hearts’ remaining fixtures are likely to take on greater significance for the chasing pack as the season draws to a close.
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on March 25, 2015.