Walker brace fires Hearts back to the top
A Jamie Walker double was enough to see Hearts secure a comfortable three points at Cappielow and return to the top of the Championship table. Jamie Mcintosh reports.
The last time Hearts faced Morton at the iconic Cappielow stadium was on Boxing Day in 1987, under the management of Sandy Jardine and Alex MacDonald. Some of the 11 that took to the field that day included Craig Levein, John Colquhoun and John Robertson. The game finished 0-0 that day in December, in front of 6,700 supporters. To say I was hoping for a more exciting game today, 33 years on, would be an understatement.
After recent defeats to Alloa and Dunfermline, Hearts manager Robbie Neilson was suddenly under a bit of pressure and needed a big performance as well as a positive result from his side at Cappielow. With Raith and Dunfermline facing off in the Fife Derby this afternoon, a win for Hearts could potentially see them leapfrog the Pars into top spot – the reality is very different however and a Hearts win today was far from a weekend banker.
David Hopkin made three changes to the side which drew 0-0 at Gayfield a fortnight ago, with ex-Hearts man Robbie Muirhead, Rabin Omar and Josh McPake replacing Michael Ledger, Luca Colville and Reece Lyon.
Meanwhile, Robbie Neilson made four changes to the side which lost in extra time at the Indodrill in the Betfred Cup last weekend, with Craig Wighton and Andy Irving getting the starts that most Hearts fans had been calling for, replacing Liam Boyce and Peter Haring. There was a welcome return for Craig Halkett, who replaced Mihai Popescu, and skipper Steven Naismith was brought in to replace Aidy White.
Morton, unlike other teams Hearts have faced so far this season, were happy to sit in and let Hearts have possession in the early stages and the game plan was working well, as Hearts hadn’t had the ball anywhere near the Morton box in the opening 15 minutes. It was actually the hosts who had the first effort on goal, with Josh McPake’s long range effort proving comfortable enough for Craig Gordon. A better chance for the hosts came just moments later, after Hearts failed to deal with a long throw and Sean McGinty’s curling effort very nearly gave the hosts the lead.
Jamie Walker missed his fair share of chances at the Indodrill last weekend and he was the first to go close for Hearts today, stinging the palms of Aidan McAdams with a volley from the edge of the box. The visitors were finally beginning to create chances and tested McAdams for the first time midway through the first half.
Steven Naismith tried his luck from distance next, before Greg Aitken waved away a Hearts penalty claim, after some intricate passing inside the Morton box led to the ball striking an outstretched arm from close range.
It had taken the visitors a while to find their stride in this one, however they were now sustaining attacks and retaining possession well, with Morton struggling to get out of their own half. Andy Irving was next to try his luck, however once again it was from range and off target.
Robbie Neilson’s gamble to start Craig Wighton over Liam Boyce almost paid off ten minutes before the break, when Michael Smith’s long ball picked the forward out on the edge of the box, but his well struck volley was beaten away by McAdams.
It felt like ages since I had seen Hearts score a goal and that wait was brought to an end after 38 minutes, when Olly Lee did well to work the ball out to the left for Walker, who had held his position out wide – for a change. His mishit volley into the ground found the far corner and the visitors had the lead that their play had just about deserved. Robbie Neilson’s vocal appreciation of the goal appeared to be more in relief than celebration – it wasn’t a classic goal, but it could be a big one in the course of Hearts’ season.
The visitors had a spring in their step and almost doubled their lead on the stroke of half time when Andy Irving slipped in Michael Smith, whose cut back for Olly Lee was miraculously tipped on to the bar by McAdams. An early contender for save of the season from the Morton stopper, keeping his side in the game, with just about the last kick of the first half.
The Morton players and staff weren’t overly impressed with referee Greg Aitken’s first half display; however, it was Hearts boss Robbie Neilson who went on to have a word with Aitken at the end of the half, after a late tackle from Ross Maciver on Christophe Berra went unpunished.
Morton were very organised in their 5-4-1 formation and in reality, they probably showed this vulnerable Hearts side too much respect in the first half by sitting off them and letting them dictate the play, with this pattern eventually seeing Walker break the deadlock.
Hearts doubled their lead just minutes into the second half. Andy Irving’s inch perfect cross-field switch was matched by Jamie Walker’s equally perfect first touch, which saw him accelerate into the box and calmly finish past McAdams. A really classy goal from Hearts and a sign of what this team is capable of when they bring their A-game.
The visitors were playing with confidence now and another chance came after Olly Lee’s deflected cross cannoned off the post and behind. Craig Halkett should’ve scored the visitors’ third from the resulting corner, but headed over from close range.
Both sides made changes as the game entered the final 15 minutes, however Morton had really struggled to trouble Hearts all afternoon and it was the visitors who saw the game out for a comfortable 2-0 victory, at a ground which can definitely be described as being a “tough place to go”.
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson was pleased with the response to last week’s disappointing Betfred Cup exit and with other results going in Hearts’ favour, they move back to the top of the Championship table:
“I got the right response, we were disappointed after last week. I’m pleased with today, but we move on to next week now against Queen of the South. I thought we played some nice football; our goals were good; my only negative is that we should have had more.”
“That’s where we want to be, we want to stay top now, in my opinion we’ve had a really good start to the season and it’s important we stay there now and keep the standards up.”
Jamie Walker’s goals gave Hearts all three points and the midfielder insists that scoring goals is how he judges his own individual performances:
“At the start of the season I always prize myself on scoring goals, so I’m obviously delighted to get two goals today, but the most important thing is the three points here, at a place which can be difficult to come and win at.”
Hearts will be relieved to return to Tynecastle next weekend when they take on Queen of the South – it will be the Jambos’ last fixture before the Scottish Cup Final against Celtic.
As for Morton, they face a tough trip to East End Park to take on an unbeaten Dunfermline side, who battled back from 2-0 down to secure a point in the Fife Derby today.