To say Robbie Neilson ‘hailed’ his team’s performance today would be appropriate, given that the wintery weather conditions in Dumbarton for today’s match bordered on the biblical.
Swirling winds, horizontal rain, then snow, then hailstones, then rain again caused absolute chaos on the park at the Bet Butler Stadium, but Hearts were the only side that managed to control the conditions to suit them.
As the Sons of the Rock won the toss at kick-off, they elected to switch ends and shoot with the wind behind them in an attempt to pin Hearts back in their own half. When Neil Alexander’s goal kicks started coming back towards him, you sensed there might be trouble.
A succession of corners for the home side saw the crossbar rattled on a number of occasions as the gale force gusts threatened to wreck Hearts’ unbeaten start to the season. However, Hearts have managed to defeat almost everything in front of them this season, and the wind was no exception.
Sam Nicholson opened the scoring with a fine drive from 30 yards off the post, before Jamie Walker buried an effort past Danny Rogers to double the lead. In the second half, debutant Género Zeefuik netted a double, and Nicholson also added to his tally. Chris Kane notched one back for the hosts, before Zeefuik’s penalty was saved as the Dutch striker was denied a debut hat-trick.
After the match, a windswept Robbie discussed his initial feelings on how he thought things might play out.
“When we saw the conditions, and then when Dumbarton chose to switch ends at the kick-off, I thought getting to half-time at 0-0 would be a good scoreline,” said Neilson. “We rode our luck at times, they hit the bar on a couple of occasions, Neil had to make some good saves and the wind was causing havoc.
“We scored two excellent goals, going into the wind, and then with the breeze behind us in the second half, I was always confident we’d be able to see out the game comfortably. We could have easily scored double the goals today with the chances we created, but the pleasing thing is we’re getting into those positions.”
Anticipation and expectation was ripe amongst the travelling support from Edinburgh as Género Zeefuik was named in the starting line-up alongside James Keatings, and the head coach revealed he was thrilled with the Netherlands U21 star’s first appearance.
“Género was brought in to score goals and to provide them, and he was fantastic for us today”, Robbie explained. “He brought Keatings and the two wingers into play with his hold-up work and helped create chances. He had a difficult time at Groningen last season, and he lost his focus.
“Now that he’s with us, he has that focus back, and if he can keep that focus and get himself fit, he’ll be a great asset for us in the remainder of the season.”
Robbie also had some special words of praise for today’s man of the match, Jamie Walker. As well as grabbing a well-taken goal, the winger provided three assists and also won a penalty. Although Robbie admitted that he’d noted supposed interest in Walker, he was adamant that the player had the ability to go as far as he wanted.
“Jamie Walker is a fantastic player. Technically, he’s different class. I know there’s been interest from other clubs reported in the media, although we’ve not been approached, but he can absolutely go to the next level. To play like he did today in these conditions was so impressive.
“To be honest, there wasn’t a fault in the whole team today. It was a really tricky set of circumstances, but they worked hard and I’m really delighted with the result.”
As today’s sets of results maintained the 13 point lead for Hearts over Rangers - and extended the lead over play-off chasing Hibs to 21 points, Robbie then looked ahead to Friday’s crunch clash at Ibrox.
Acknowledging the team may have suffered a dip in form over the past few weeks, the head coach conceded that, while winning games 1-0 might be considered a drop in quality, he’d be delighted if they left Govan with that result on Friday night.
“We’ve got a huge game on Friday night now. The boys are in tomorrow morning for training, to refocus and to get ready for that. People talk about a dip in form but perhaps we’ve already had that, we had a spell of just getting through games by a goal or two.
“As dips in form go, it’s not bad at all. Having said that, I’ll absolutely take a scrappy 1-0 on Friday night, I’d love that.”