Walker Winner Enough To Send Hearts Twelve Clear
A Jamie Walker winner was enough to give Hearts a 1-0 victory over Dunfermline and extend their lead at the top of the table to 12 points. Jamie Mcintosh reports.
Hearts got their season back on track on Tuesday night with a comfortable 4-0 victory over Raith Rovers – the side who inflicted Hearts’ third league defeat of the season, last weekend at Tynecastle.
The first of those league defeats for Hearts was against today’s opponents Dunfermline. The Pars won 2-1 at East End Park in November, a win which saw them leapfrog the Jambos into pole position in the Championship.
Since then, Dunfermline have won only once in the league and that victory came at home to bottom side Arbroath. The Pars may have only lost once in the league this season, but they have drawn six of their 12 games in the division, which is why they find themselves nine points behind league leaders Hearts, albeit with one game in hand.
As previously mentioned, Hearts were victorious at Stark’s Park on Tuesday and in good style, so it came as no surprise to see Robbie Neilson make just the one unforced change with skipper Steven Naismith returning to the starting eleven at the expense of Jamie Walker, meanwhile Euan Henderson started in place of the injured Josh Ginnelly.
As for today’s visitors Dunfermline, they arrived at Tynecastle on the back of their second consecutive 0-0 draw and manager Stevie Crawford made two changes to the side that faced Ayr last weekend, with Lewis Mayo and Fraser Murray replacing Dom Thomas (who scored the opener against Hearts in November) and the injured Kyle Turner.
The Match Itself
It had been over 250 minutes since Dunfermline last found the net, they almost made the perfect start in this one however, Michael Smith was well positioned to clear Declan McManus’ effort off the line in the opening minute.
Mihai Popescu hasn’t had the easiest start to life at Hearts, however the defender impressed on Tuesday at Stark’s Park, and almost gave his side the lead when getting his head on the end of a deep Steven Naismith corner, but Owain-Fon Williams was on his toes to deny him and keep his side on level terms.
Craig Gordon is arguably the best goalkeeper in the country at the moment and he produced an outstanding save to prevent Ryan Dow’s header opening the scoring seven minutes before the break.
Hearts had tried a different system today, with Steven Naismith sitting in a deeper role alongside Andy Irving and Andy Halliday playing on the left wing. It’s fair to say it hadn’t worked and Hearts had struggled to create anything of note from open play. If it wasn’t for Craig Gordon and Michael Smith’s heroics, the Pars could have easily been in front, however it was goalless at the break in a game that had struggled to ignite in the first 45.
After a sluggish first half, Hearts had a couple of chances to break the deadlock early in the second. Firstly, Henderson had a positive run up the left wing before cutting inside and firing straight at Fon Williams, then Smith’s low drive from the edge of the box flashed just wide of the far post.
Up the other end Dunfermline created their first chance of the second half when a cross from the right was knocked down by Mayo and McManus’ shot on the turn was well held by Gordon.
On the hour mark Robbie Neilson made a double change in the hope of sparking his team into life, new signing Armand Gnanduillet and Aidy White were introduced in place of Henderson and Gary Mackay-Steven.
The chances were coming a bit more frequently now and again Gordon had to be alert to deny McManus at his near post.
The substitute Gnanduillet almost had his third goal for Hearts when he met Irving’s delivery, however Fon Williams did just enough to keep his header out and Boyce couldn’t stretch enough to tap in the rebound.
Finally, the deadlock was broken with 10 minutes to play, Jamie Walker could consider himself unfortunate not to start today after an impressive display on Tuesday night. The winger didn’t hang about when being brought on in place of Naismith. He received the ball on the right wing before turning away from his man beautifully and sliding the ball into the far corner to give Hearts the lead.
Unsurprisingly, in a game of very few chances Walker’s goal turned out to be the winner and extended Hearts’ lead at the top of the Championship to 12 points. It wasn’t a classic, but that won’t bother Robbie Neilson’s Hearts side one bit.
“I think we’ve played better, I know we have actually,” Neilson admitted.
“Tuesday night was a great performance. Today’s one was just a bit of a grind it out match, but sometimes you need to do that to win a title. We know in this league that you’re going to get beat, we try to win every game but that’s not always possible, so I think it’s more about how you respond.”
Match winner Walker is now one goal away from reaching 50 goals in a Hearts shirt but explains he’s more concerned with helping the team than his personal milestones.
“It was a close game, Craigy made a few good saves and helped us out, I’m just really happy to come off the bench and help the team, when I get those opportunities, I’m always confident that I’m going to hit the back of the net.”
“By my own standards I’ve not been at it every week, it’s up to me to try find the consistency in my game, I’ve been on the edge of 50 goals for a while now, but when it comes it’ll be a very proud moment for me and my family.”
It was a tough loss to take for Dunfermline, considering there was very little in the game, but manager Stevie Crawford sees Wednesday’s Fife Derby as the perfect game to bounce back in.
“Obviously we’re disappointed not to take something from the game, I thought our shape was very good and we worked the goalkeeper more than we have in previous weeks today. I thought Craig Gordon was magnificent today and that shows the standard of the squad that Hearts have.”
It’s a quick turnaround for Dunfermline who host Raith on Wednesday, meanwhile Hearts have a couple of extra days off before travelling to the west coast to take on Ayr United on Friday night.