Back in May, when the lineup for this season’s Scottish Championship was finally decided, there was more than a murmur of excitement and anticipation from the Scottish footballing fraternity. A star-studded cast of some of the country’s top teams and a raft of up-and-coming outfits would provide a stunning spectacle which, they said, would be a greater spectacle than its big brother, the Premiership.
Most “expert observers” (well, the Scottish football media, whose expert status is dubious to say the least) had it down as an easy ride for Rangers, now just one step away from the top flight (whether that is back where they belong, or whether for the first time depends on various levels of pedantry/delusion) after going the full season unbeaten in League 1. Despite both Hearts and Hibs dropping into the division, the former now free of their financial woes, not one major observer gave either a chance.
Admittedly, Hibs have made a bit of a hash of the season so far under new manager Alan Stubbs. Although they dished out a footballing lesson to Rangers at Ibrox, they have struggled against the so-called lesser lights of the division, leaking goals and failing to get results against the likes of Alloa and Falkirk.
But Hearts have been a different proposition altogether. It never ceases to amaze how they managed to slip under the radar before the season’s kick off, on the field at least.
The media attention focused on businesswoman Ann Budge’s takeover, bringing about a rapid move towards fan ownership after the entertaining but ultimately disastrous reign of Vladimir Romanov, whose questionably-obtained funds propelled the club to two Scottish Cups (the 2012 5-1 victory over Hibs has gone down in history among the Tynecastle faithful) and administration, which led to the club beginning last season’s Premiership campaign on -15 points.
That ultimately sealed the deal with regard to their top flight status, but Championship football has given Hearts the chance to start afresh: debt-free, living within their means, and possibly most vitally, with fans who are in love with their club once more. And that has translated to the action on the pitch.
In stark contrast to their arch-rivals from Leith, they have been the epitome of consistency, dropping just four points all season to top the table, and seemingly have the title sewn up barely halfway through the campaign.
The Jambos have been unstoppable, and even when they seemed down and out in the recent Edinburgh derby - reduced to ten men and a goal in arrears heading into injury time - centre-back Alim Ozturk displayed remarkable belief to thunder a 40-yard strike in off the crossbar to salvage a point.
It has perhaps been the defining moment of their season so far, although last weekend’s match against Rangers certainly runs it close.
The men from the blue half of Glasgow were dominating, but as has been an issue for them at points this season, discipline cost them. With barely 20 minutes on the clock, veteran Steven Smith lunged into a high, late tackle on recent Scotland squad member Callum Paterson (which shows just how impressive some of the Jambos’ performers have been) to give even the SFA’s typically incompetent Craig Thomson no choice but to brandish a red card.
Hearts were not in the mood to be sympathetic to their title rivals’ disadvantage and they took the lead when Jason Holt thundered in a wonderful strike from the edge of the box, a goal which summed up the confidence flooding through the veins of Hearts’ still-youthful squad.
And when former Hearts man Ian Black - for the people of Tynecastle, the pantomime villain for the day - dragged down Jamie Walker in the box, the youngster dusted himself down to finish off the contest and quite possibly the title race.
With a nine-point lead over Rangers at the top of the table, the Jambos can start to look back towards the Premiership, and the hope is that this great Scottish footballing power will soon be back in their rightful place.