THE bigger, more experienced men in the Hearts dressing room have a responsibility to guide their younger team-mates, be it with advice, praise or a right good rollicking.
All of that and more was required at Tynecastle on Saturday when they produced a performance that can only be described as a mixed bag.
Hearts showed plenty of character to score two equalisers, the second of them three minutes from the end – albeit when their opponents were down to ten men – but there were shortcomings too. Their carelessness, especially in midfield, combined with County’s attacking power to produce an open, entertaining affair, some of which had to be watched through the cracks in your fingers.
Callum Tapping, for instance, will have nightmares about his part in County’s opener. After nicking the ball from Jamie Hamill’s toes, he promptly passed to Graham Carey, who slotted it under Jamie MacDonald from just inside the box. As the visitors celebrated, Hamill gave Tapping a stare that needed no words to accompany it.
Then, after Callum Paterson quickly responded with a left-foot shot into the bottom corner, the young striker also found himself on the end of a reprimand. His defending could have been better when Gary Glen and Kevin Luckassen set up a goal for Melvin De Leeuw, and Danny Wilson told him so. Their altercation ended with the former Liverpool defender pushing Paterson away.
“It was just a disagreement,” said Wilson. “That’s the most that will come of it. We had an exchange of words and we move on. I had my view of it and he had his. I understand that, but I think he could have done better. It’s just one of those things.”
Hearts’ young players were not the only ones self-destructing. Hamill also conceded possession with a wayward backpass, only to be spared embarrassment by Jamie MacDonald, who blocked Luckassen’s effort. Add to that a couple of shots by Rocco Quinn, one of which cannoned down off the crossbar, and the home side were fortunate still to be in the game.
“We should have been out of sight at half-time,” said Derek Adams, the County manager. “That was the best performance we have had this season offensively.”
Only when Richie Brittain was sent off midway through the second half for his second bookable offence – both of them fouls on Jamie Walker – did Hearts raise their game. Hamill, Walker and Ryan Stevenson all came close before Wilson, three minutes from the end, brought the house down with a header that went in off the post.
Relieved though they were to salvage a point, they nearly claimed all three when Paterson crashed a stoppage-time header against the bar. While that would have been harsh on County, who had been strong and disciplined, it left Hearts with mixed feelings.
Gary Locke, their manager, spoke later about the team’s spirit, but he must know that, if they are to have any chance of overcoming the 15-point handicap that makes relegation almost inevitable, they will need more than courage and commitment. No-one disputes that these young Hearts players are giving their all, but will it be enough?
Here we are, 13 matches into the campaign, and Hearts are only three points closer to 11th place than they were when they started. Locke knows that draws are not enough. They need wins, especially in home games against the likes of Ross County, relegation rivals who have not won on the road all season and were a man short for the last 27 minutes.
On the other hand, Hearts are now within three points of zero. Admittedly, it is a meaningless landmark, identified only for motivational purposes but, with no sign of a rival being caught, it will have to do.
“The sooner we get there, the better,” said Wilson. “We are another step closer. We might have been even closer had the defending been better and we had taken a few more chances, but these things happen. We’re only three points away now. We look forward to getting there.”
If they do, it will not be this weekend, when Hearts play a Scottish Cup third-round tie against Celtic at Tynecastle. When the teams met there in August, the visitors won 3-1, but Wilson is optimistic that his team, already in the semi-finals of the Scottish League Cup, can again rise to the challenge of knockout competition.
“We’ve done OK in the League Cup and now we’re in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup, playing against the holders, the champions, Celtic. That’s not an ideal start, but you never know. It’s a cup tie, and you get all the clichés that go with it. We fancy ourselves against anybody here.”