IT has been a long time coming but yesterday Hearts left the negativity behind them. They moved on to a positive points tally for the first time this season and they did so playing a positive brand of football, which really should have served up even more goals.
A week before they head into the League Cup semi-final with Inverness Caledonian Thistle, they out-played their Highland neighbours and grabbed a league win for the first time since November.
It was one they thoroughly merited but the longer the match progressed with one chance after another going awry, there was a nagging fear that this could end up as yet another slap in the face.
Within the first two minutes they had the opportunities to give themselves a two-goal lead and that was a pattern they deviated from only marginally as the remainder of the first half played out. For their 11 attempts at goal, the home side could only muster four, yet, as they left the field for the interval, the sides were still locked in a draw, having netted one effort each.
“I was absolutely delighted with the performance and if we’d taken our chances in the first half we could have been three or four up,” said Hearts manager, Gary Locke. “When you are missing ones like we did you do start to wonder if it’s going to happen. But the lads kept going, kept producing a great team performance and I couldn’t be happier. Hopefully in the weeks ahead we’ll start taking our chances.”
With Premiership survival necessitating a miracle, the pressure seems to have lifted from the shoulders of the young Tynecastle side, who even without the suspended Ryan Stevenson, turned in one of their most convincing performances of the season.
Down the flanks, both Sam Nicholson and David Smith posed their hosts real problems, finding space to run into time and time again and getting one delivery after another into the danger area.
In the first minute it was Smith who flighted a cross in from the right to Nicholson, but he sent his shot over the bar. Less than 60 seconds later, the pair then linked up to supply Callum Paterson but his effort went narrowly wide. In the 12th minute Smith fed Dale Carrick but, stretching, his header was too high.
Two minutes later Smith had two attempts. The first was blocked by the Ross County rearguard but they couldn’t clear the danger and when the ball came back to the winger, Michael Fraser had to pull off a save.
There were then appeals for a penalty as Nicholson’s 19th minute shot was blocked by Brian McLean. The away contingent felt he had used his arm, the referee saw no infringement.
Carrick then found the side-netting as Hearts applied the pressure with wave after wave of attack and Ross County, who had gone into the game on the back of collecting ten points out of a possible 12 since the turn of the year, had no adequate answer to the questions being posed.
“We have no complaints,” said Derek Adams, manager of the Dingwall side. “Hearts did really well. They started on the front foot and caused us problems. Just after half-time we looked a bit stronger and had more control of the game but did we do enough to score? Maybe not.”
It was an honest appraisal. The truth was his team hardly deserved the parity they enjoyed at that stage. For all Hearts chances, they had only converted one before half-time. That came in the 38th minute after Smith, Kevin McHattie and Carrick all contrived to miss further openings.
Smith swung in the corner, Brad McKay and Richard Brittain challenged for the header but the flick on found Paterson and he jabbed it over the line from a few yards out.
Ross County, in contrast, had conjured up very little so it was a blow to the Hearts psyche to find themselves back on level terms within seven minutes. Poor defending from a set piece allowed Yann Songo’o, on loan from Blackburn Rovers to finish.
Ross County did start the second half brighter but although they enjoyed greater possession, Hearts weathered anything they could throw at them, and with 11 minutes remaining Smith sent another ball in and when it broke, Scott Robinson turned and sent a determined drive beyond Fraser.
It was fitting then that a performance that was both more composed, more positive and more streetwise was the one that saw them finally wipe out the 15 point deficit which had been imposed at the start of what has been a difficult campaign.
“We’re finally in positive points and that will give everyone a big psychological boost,” said Locke. “It has been a long hard slog to get where we are but the place will get a lift. I’ve seen signs in the last few weeks that a bit of confidence is coming back and we’re delighted to get a win for the supporters because they came up here in good numbers again. So it was great to send them home happy.”
Ross County: Fraser, Gordon (De Leeuw, 88), Songo’o, Brittain, McLean, Oikonomou, Kiss, Tidser (Cooper, 88), Arquin, Slew, Carey.
Subs not used: Brown, Boyd, Micic, Quinn, Glen.
Goals: Y Songo’o, 45.
Booked: Y Songo’o, F Kiss, Y Arquin.
Hearts: MacDonald, McHattie, McKay, Hamill, Wilson, McGowan, Smith, Carrick (B King, 74), Paterson, Robinson, Nicholson (Tapping, 83).
Subs not used: Ridgers, Oliver, McGhee, Beith.
Goals: C Paterson 37; S Robinson 80.
Booked: B McKay, C Paterson, S Robinson.
Referee: K Clancy