CALEY Thistle’s fine start to the season shows no sign of running out of steam – but if they are as profligate in closer contests as they were here, they could live to regret it.
SCORERS: McKay 9, 31
Ahead 2-0 at half-time, Terry Butcher’s team should have run out easy winners, but they failed to convert a dozen or more second-half chances against a Hearts team who ended up with ten men after Jamie Hamill’s sending-off for a hand-ball in the box.
Nonetheless, the result restored Inverness’s three-point lead at the top of the table, and given the result at Paisley, was no real setback to Hearts’ hopes either. Nine points behind St Mirren, the Edinburgh team have still made an impressive start to the season, as Butcher suggested.
“We were comfortable in many aspects, but Hearts have a lot of spirit,” the Inverness manager said. “When you’re 2-0 up at half-time a lot of people would say, ‘You’re playing the bottom-of-the-league team, you should score more goals’.
“But on form, they’re just below us. They’re still a formidable force, and you have to give them credit. We just couldn’t get that third goal.”
The dismissal of Hamill means that – unless an appeal is successful, and Hearts made no mention of one – the defender will miss his team’s next game, at home to Celtic. Hamill, who has been playing in midfield, was at left-back, and captain for the day, in the absence through suspension of Danny Wilson and Kevin McHattie.
In an indication of just how thinly Hearts’ resources have been stretched, several of the seven substitutes are not even recognised members of Locke’s first-team squad. Butcher, by contrast, was able to field the same line-up for the fifth game in succession.
Playing with a strong wind behind them, Hearts began the game confidently, and a Jamie Walker shot was not far off the mark after a swift passing move from right to left that also involved David Smith and Jason Holt. At the other end, Richie Foran had a similar chance after a cross from the right, but he too pulled his shot off target.
The space in which the Caley Thistle captain found himself was a warning to Hearts, and a minute later they found themselves a goal down. Full-back David Raven combined with Aaron Doran down the right, and his cross was calmly swept home first time by Billy McKay.
Hearts steadily made their way back into the match, and with nearly half an hour gone Walker had another attempt – from the right this time – that went narrowly wide of Dean Brill’s goal. Again Inverness responded immediately, but Nick Ross became the latest to fail to be on target with a shot which should at least have forced Jamie MacDonald into making a save.
The home team were creating space for themselves at will, and they made that count in a swift counter-attack which saw McKay break straight at Hamill after a clearance by Ross Draper. Hamill was able to slow the striker down, but from the left McKay fed Doran, who fired in a shot from the right side of the box.
Scott Robinson blocked, James Vincent failed to make decent contact with a shot on the spin, and then Brad McKay stuck in a foot to nudge the ball further away from goal. Unfortunately for the defender, that only knocked it into the path of his Inverness namesake, who doubled his and his team’s tally with an easy effort from just a few yards out.
It was the first time this season Hearts have been more than a goal down, but they remained resilient, and could easily have pulled one back before half-time. A quick turn put Walker in the clear on the right of the box, and his thundering shot beat Brill only to come crashing back off the right post.
Gary Warren could have put the contest beyond doubt within minutes of the restart, but his header from a Doran cross came back off the bar. McKay looked likeliest to score Caley Thistle’s third and complete his hat-trick, but he was unable to do so with three more opportunities as the home team continued to dominate the second half. His first shot went wide; his second, struck as ferociously as it was accurate, was well saved by MacDonald; and then, some time later, Brad McKay put in a timely block to stop his third shot from finding the target.
With eight minutes to play, McKay had the perfect chance to score his third from the penalty spot after Hamill was red-carded for stopping a shot with his hand. The captain departed protesting his innocence, and McKay again failed to capitalise, as MacDonald got down quickly to save his tame spot-kick. McKay, who had volunteered to take the penalty, was substituted with a couple of minutes to go, and Inverness were content to play out time against the ten men without making too strenuous an effort to extend a lead, which could easily have been double by that time.
The Hearts team left the field with their heads down, but the travelling support of more than 1,000 cheered them off, and they will learn more from this defeat than they might from five or six easy victories.
The one big downside of the afternoon for Locke was the loss of another player to a red card. “I spoke to Jamie and he said it hit him on the head,” the Hearts manager said. “I spoke to the ref after the game and he said it was a hand-ball. You just have to go with his decision.
“We’re going to get days like today. We had a great couple of weeks and this is a wee setback, but it’s not the end of the world.”