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10 of 010 Ryan Stevenson 77L SPL H

Celebratory scenes could be sign of things to come

Michael Grant at Tynecastle

24 Jan 2011

Their joy was unbridled.

They leapt around, hugging, shaking each other, spraying drinks around, shouting. They looked like an underdog that had just knocked the favourites out of the cup. They looked like they’d just taken a massive stride towards winning something. Frankly, they looked like a team that had surprised themselves.

What the Sky cameras captured in the Tynecastle home dressing room a few minutes after full-time wasn’t a set of players used to delivering major results. Not yet, anyway. When the Old Firm players and management eventually get to see the footage they might quietly smile about Hearts’ excitement. May’s the month for celebrations. No-one gets medals in January. All that jumping around won’t count for much if – and this is always the drearily probable outcome in Scotland – Rangers and Celtic yet again stretch away to finish 10 or more points clear. In any given season the third force tends to have its moments in December and January, not April and May.

Still, the rise of Hearts is the great story of Scottish football right now. If they show nerve and composure there could be more buoyant days for them soon. What a healthy result this was for the title race and how revealing it was of some of the qualities Hearts bring to the top of the table. Here they inverted the usual course of events when a challenger faces up to one of the Old Firm. Hearts were the ones who soaked up pressure, Hearts were the ones who didn’t play too well, Hearts were the ones who made only one real chance, Hearts were the ones who buried it and made off with the points. Usually all of that is the other way around.

No-one has beaten them in the league since October. And they’re winning games, not drawing them. They answered some questions by dealing with Rangers on their own patch and will not have to wait long for further interrogations. They are at Parkhead on Wednesday then Ibrox a week later. If they can take two or four points from those games – ie deny either Glasgow club a win – that will be far more revealing than results in Edinburgh. They have now beaten Rangers and Celtic at Tynecastle but must make two visits to Ibrox and one to Parkhead. Sir Alex Ferguson held that up as the litmus test for his Aberdeen sides in the 1980s. They passed it and no other club has since. Hearts have given themselves a shot.

It was heartening for them that they won with a key man missing and others who gave unremarkable performances. Kevin Kyle watched from the packed main stand, injury robbing Jim Jefferies of the height and brute strength which has worried the Rangers defence before. None of David Templeton, Rudi Skacel or Stephen Elliott were at their best and Ryan Stevenson, a midfielder, was quiet for all but one of his 87 minutes on the park. What a minute, though. Lee Wallace’s ball into the box found Rangers exposed and Elliott’s weak shot came to Stevenson in the six-yard box. He took a touch and jabbed it into the net, 13 minutes from time. That had been just about their only threat to Allan McGregor’s goal all day.

Rangers felt mugged although it wasn’t easy to sympathise with Walter Smith’s view that it was the best they had played at Tynecastle since his return four years ago. Neither side showed much quality on a difficult playing surface. It was a niggly match, dominated by interceptions, tackles, fouls, poor passes, players stretching unsuccessfully to reach things, moves breaking down, shots and crosses going off target and free-kicks thudding into walls. It was reminiscent of recent Old Firm games, which isn’t meant as a compliment although it says much for the level of competitive energy and desire Hearts demanded from Rangers.

Nikica Jelavic’s 22 minutes on the pitch almost yielded a goal when he cracked a shot off the underside of the bar. No goals were scored in the first game since Kenny Miller’s sale and yesterday Nacho Novo was linked with a return to Ibrox. They are light up front. Only Jelavic and Steven Naismith look capable of scoring frequently. Their other chances came early but Marian Kello twice saved excellently from Jamie Ness but attempts from Naismith and Kyle Lafferty did not work him hard.

Rangers’ early pressure burned out and Adrian Mrowiec and Ruben Palazuelos, in front of a powerful back four and goalkeeper, were too strong a unit to break down. Hearts are athletic, organised, and playing with a growing sense of belief. They are settled and the absence of any cup ties will provide precious rest periods between league games.

Smith won’t be back at Tynecastle as a manager. Rangers’ two league visits to Gorgie are done and they cannot meet in either of the cups, so this was his farewell. He’ll miss raw, throbbing days like this. Before kick-off he leaned into Jefferies and purred about how the atmosphere in their great old ground could get the juices flowing. No wonder the locals were raising the roof. Right now Hearts are the form team in the land.

Taken from the Herald

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