Whisper it, but Scottish football could be about to witness a three-horse race for this year's Premier League title, with Heart of Midlothian FC joining the familiar duo of Celtic FC and Rangers FC in vying for the championship.
More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since a club outside the Old Firm won the Scottish crown, with a pre-knighthood Sir Alex Ferguson leading Aberdeen FC to the 1984/85 title. In the intervening years, Hearts have come closest to breaking the Glasgow duopoly, when they surrendered the 1985/86 championship to Celtic on the last day of term and again five years ago when Gordon Strachan's Celtic stole the crown after the Tynecastle team had set the early pace.
Now under Jim Jefferies, who guided Hearts to Scottish Cup success in 1998, the side from Edinburgh's Gorgie district are handily placed in third after beating Rangers 1-0 on Saturday. They will leapfrog the titleholders to move within four points of leaders Celtic – and have a game in hand – should they complete an Old Firm double at Celtic Park tonight. Having already beaten both Glasgow clubs this season, Jambos supporters are quietly confident of not only splitting the Old Firm but mounting a sustained challenge.
"If we win, we will be even more in the hunt," said Jefferies. "It's in our hands and hopefully we can go there and get a result. We did Celtic a favour at the weekend and maybe can do Rangers one on Wednesday, but most importantly we can do ourselves the biggest favour. There's a long way to go but hopefully we can hang in there."
With just one defeat in nine away matches – October's 2-0 reverse at Celtic – and another trip west to play Rangers next Wednesday, Saturday's goal hero Ryan Stevenson acknowledges the next seven days could prove pivotal in shaping the title run-in.
"A lot of people say we're in the championship race but we have to face both of them in Glasgow in the next two midweeks," said Stevenson who should continue in attack, with Kevin Kyle ruled out with a groin injury. "If we're still in touching distance once we come through that then we can start to look at it. We have belief and know how good we can be."
Hearts's Spanish midfielder Rubén Palazuelos added: "Everyone in Spain talks about Celtic and Rangers when they talk about Scottish football. I think every country is the same. In Spain you have Real Madrid and Barcelona going for the league; in Italy it's AC Milan and Inter. But we can do something important this season. Maybe it will be about Hearts, you never know!"
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