ON paper, the gap between the sides was vast. The points difference in the league is there for a reason and is significant and, while Hearts are toiling with a small squad of kids, who have been leaking goals at one end and struggling to add any at the other, Inverness are a side imbued with the ability to keep clean sheets, and a player like Billy McKay who contributes the high-calibre finishes.
SCORERS: Inverness - McKay 59, 83
His goal record sees him clear at the top of the scoring charts and, with another two yesterday, he ensured that Inverness remain best of the rest behind Celtic in the
Premiership standings but this match wasn’t as one-sided as it might have been.
The Inverness Caledonian Thistle striker was the difference between the teams. On a day when the conditions were vile, many had predicted that the young Hearts side would be blown away. Having slumped to a hefty cup defeat to Celtic and then conceded four goals at Tannadice last weekend, the prospect of facing up to the second top team minus one of the few experienced players and one of the few accepted goal threats, was fraught with the possibility of another humbling.
But, for all that Inverness have built their success and their reputation on the spirit, character and togetherness which was so readily praised by new manager John Hughes after the whistle, they weren’t the only ones who displayed those qualities yesterday, particularly in the first half, but while the home side pressed forward with no return, the visitors were more clinical when the opportunities came their way. Well, McKay was. Hearts’ chances were limited, not through a lack of endeavour but simply a paucity of invention in the final third. Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson, who was making his full debut, pushed up down the flanks and tried to get the supply to Callum Paterson and Gary Oliver, who was making his league debut, but more often than not the ball didn’t break kindly and when it did the strikers were swamped by Inverness defenders.
The best opportunity of the first half fell to Aaron Doran but Tynecastle goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald produced a superb save to keep out his 25-yard strike.
He couldn’t halt McKay, who netted his 14th of the season in the 58th minute, a welcome reward for the way the Highland side had shifted things up a gear or two after the break to set themselves apart from the dogged Hearts players.
With Jamie Hamill, who had returned to his full-back berth, committing himself early, McKay moved past him and into space in the box and, switching the ball on to his right foot, curled a shot past the helpless MacDonald.
He came close to adding his 15th of the season when he pinged a shot wide and, later, Graeme Shinnie also missed the target as Inverness began to dominate. Then, in the 70th minute, McKay smacked an effort off the post after Marley Watkins had sent in the cross. The latter almost sneaked in at the back post in the 78th minute to finish a Doran long ball but it was only when McKay popped up again, in the 83rd minute, that the game was put beyond Hearts. It was Watkins’ pass which set him up and he skelped the ball home from 25 yards.
“The overhead conditions were horrendous throughout the match so credit the two teams who got stuck in about it,” said Hughes. “We came on strong in the second half. But I expected that with the spirit and character that’s in the dressing room and they have a will to win. Their strength is their togetherness so although it was a difficult match, I’m delighted we came out on top.”
“I didn’t think there was a lot in the game, I thought we competed well but you saw the difference was Billy McKay,” countered Gary Locke, who was happy with the efforts of his own team, although disappointed to lose the match. “He is a striker of quality and he had two chances and rattled them away.”
“Billy has that in him,” conceded Hughes. “He is a fantastic guy to work with. I think it was a right foot and a left foot and he certainly has that in his locker. You can see he is an exceptional talent.”
For Hearts, though, the spirit and endeavour is still there but it is that absence of an out-and-out goal-scorer that remains one of the biggest hurdles to their dwindling hopes of top flight survival. No one at the club is throwing in the towel but without a more reliable source of goals, it is going to be difficult.
The enforced substitution of Jamie Walker could further hamper things in that department. With Ryan
Stevenson already sidelined with a hamstring tear, the club will await news on the winger, who went off at half-time with an Achilles problem.
But at least there was a more resolute looking defence yesterday. It didn’t deliver them any much-needed points but it will offer some form of solace with another match against Celtic looming next weekend.