JUST when it looked as though this could be dismissed as a pedestrian, harmless end-of-season affair, a penalty, a sending-off and a rumpus that made Bob the Builder look mature led to a Hearts victory and a momentous end to their historic week.
Hearts 2 - 0 Ross County
SCORERS: Hearts: Hamill 65′ (pen) Carrick 90′
It had been a tepid encounter at Tynecastle until the 66th minute, when Jamie Hamill scored from the spot, wound up the County players by running off with the ball and knocked over their manager, Derek Adams, in the process. The defender’s second yellow card was inevitable. Not that he will be troubled. The game hinged on his goal, which was followed by Dale Carrick’s second in stoppage time. Hearts have now secured ten points from a possible 12, fuelling hopes that the relegated club are equipped to make a decent fist of the Championship next season.
And all at the end of a week in which the Edinburgh club’s future was virtually secured. Ann Budge, their prospective new owner, confirmed in a statement yesterday that she expected them to be out of administration soon. She also indicated a desire to discuss the future with their “current management team”.
“It’s been a really positive week for the club,” said Gary Locke, the manager. “It was important that we finished the week on a positive note and we’ve done that.”
The same cannot be said for Ross County, who now occupy the play-off spot. They laid on free buses for their supporters, nearly around 500 of whom gathered behind the goal for what had been billed in the north as Dark Blue Saturday. All that was asked in return was that travelling fans made a donation to the Foundation of Hearts, a gesture that was warmly applauded before kick-off. That show of mutual appreciation made for a relaxed, almost friendly start to the game, compounded by news of Hibs’ travails in Paisley. “You’re going down with the Hibees,” chanted the County support, only to hear their Edinburgh counterparts happily repeating the prediction.
In a forgettable first half, neither side showed enough urgency to rouse those who were sunbathing in the stands. Carrick had Hearts’ only chance of that opening period when Billy King slid a clever ball into his path, but Mark Brown was out quickly to block.
County, without the suspended Melvin de Leeuw, were toothless. Michael Tidser had a couple of unsuccessful pots at goal, and a bouncing shot by Filip Kiss almost caught Jamie MacDonald unawares, but the biggest scare for Hearts was an effort that arrived more by accident than design. Richie Brittain zipped a corner into the six-yard box, Sam Nicholson got the slightest of touches, and the ball ricocheted off Kiss and past the post.
County emerged from the interval with more intent, as Brittain and Graham Carey each had efforts on goal, but it was at the other end, midway through the second period, that the game came to life. A brilliant diving block by Yann Songo’o denied Nicholson after a slick exchange with King was followed moments later by the penalty.
Graham Carey brought down Kevin McHattie in the box, Hamill blasted it high past Mark Brown, and it all kicked off during the celebration. Despite Scott Boyd’s attempts to retrieve the ball from the net, Hamill collected it and disappeared off to the touchline, where he was engulfed by team-mates. When Songo’o, amongst others, again urged him to give it back, the defender obliged with a backhanded throw in the other direction.
That, of course, should have been that, but worse was to follow. As Hamill returned to his own half, he plotted a route past the visitors’ technical area, where he somehow contrived to send Adams flying. By the time County’s manager was back on his feet, Songo’o was steaming in and Hamill was at the centre of a trackside melee. It was a minute or two before the childish kerfuffle settled down, at which point Willie Collum, the referee, sent Hamill packing. The defender smiled and ripped off his shirt as he walked up the tunnel, where he and Neale Cooper, County’s assistant manager, had to be kept apart. Songo’o was also booked for his part in the trouble.
Adams refused to comment on the incident.
Locke, who had been among those on the pitch, was not so circumspect. “I was just trying to calm everything down,” he said. “For me, it was unnecessary. It was pretty stupid. I was just trying to calm our players down and make sure that they behaved themselves and thankfully most of them did that.”
With their numerical advantage, County fashioned a couple of late chances, but Erik Cikos and Jordan Slew both missed, leaving Carrick to round off the scoring. Scott Robinson, a substitute, burst forward on the counter-attack, squared to his young team-mate, who dug the ball out from his feet and thrashed it in off the goalkeeper’s hand.