HEARTS might have been in the Highlands but it was understandable if their minds were elsewhere.
Inverness CT 1 - 1 Hearts
Inverness CT - Tudur Jones (19)
Hearts - Zaliukas (90 pen)
As manager John McGlynn pointed out afterwards, it was difficult to gauge how much the players were affected by news that their club might go out of existence before the next scheduled home game, against St Mirren on Saturday. Against this backdrop, Hearts were asked to travel to Inverness, where, by contrast, they found their hosts in buoyant mood.
A win would have taken Terry Butcher’s side to joint top of the league, for a night at least, and Butcher was furious that this distinction was snatched away from them at the end. Who knows when the chance might come again?
Hearts, however, have weightier concerns. Given the week in prospect, it would not have been a surprise had their players stinted on their endeavours in the Highlands and accepted the 1-0 defeat that looked set to be their fate. Yet, against the odds, and in the 90th minute, Hearts earned some revenge for the blow of being pegged back by Inverness at Tynecastle in August, having led 2-0.
This time their opponents felt the sting in the tail. Hearts’ last-ditch leveller will hopefully stand as an emblem for the coming days. When they looked down and out, they got back up again. The recovery underlined the importance of not giving up until the final whistle. Even though they had created precious few clear-cut chances, Hearts still resolved to throw the ball into the box again and again in the hope that something of worth might occur. Finally it did, with Owain Tudor Jones lured into an injudicious challenge on the edge of the box.
Some credit too must go to McGlynn. His double substitution at half-time helped shift momentum, although, in truth, Hearts had begun to impose themselves more towards the end of the first half. No one is suggesting that Andrew Driver is back to anything like the player he once was, and he still looks a long way short of match-fit. His arrival, however, after the interval helped offer Hearts some width. Dylan McGowan was also sent on at the same time, for the ineffective Mehdi Taouil.
Hearts reaped the benefit and though they struggled to make Inverness goalkeeper Antonio Reguero really work, the pressure they managed to exert produced something tangible in the 89th minute, when Tudur Jones whipped Callum Paterson off his feet.
Marius Zaliukas has to be commended for shouldering the responsibility of taking the penalty himself. He grabbed the ball from a miffed Ryan Stevenson, and the Hearts fans gathered behind the goal at the same end might well have feared the worst. Those concerns would have been unfounded. Zaliukas converted the penalty, although it left Stevenson still seeking to break his duck in his second spell at the club. Zaliukas celebrated his 29th birthday by sweeping the ball low into left hand corner of the net, leaving Reguero well beaten. Stevenson was left to rue another game where he has failed to score – the player who walked out on the club last season in protest at wage delays has now made ten appearances since he returned to the club from Ipswich Town. He can’t be faulted for effort, however.
His shoot-on-sight policy did not yield much in the way of results. As he noted afterwards, he could now do with a bit of fortune playing its part. “It’s been like this since I came back really,” said Stevenson. “Personally, I am just hoping that one hits the backside of someone and then goes in, and then maybe I can go on a wee run.”
Although Hearts’ equaliser arrived in the 90th minute, they still had to endure a couple of scares before referee Willie Collum blew the final whistle, meaning the more important business of trying to ensure the club survives beyond the end of this week could begin. As Stevenson said, there are some huge occasions ahead in a football sense, including a Scottish Communities Cup semi-final against Saturday’s opponents. Hearts need to get through this week first, however.
McGlynn steeled himself for the arduous days ahead with a glass of red wine, as is customary when the host is Terry Butcher. The Inverness manager felt like supping deeply, too. Butcher worried that too much had been made of the possibility that Inverness could overhaul both Celtic and Hibs at the league summit with a handsome win.
To have concerns about players failing to cope with the pressure associated with being Scottish Premier League high-fliers is unusual for an Inverness manager, but Butcher’s side lived up to the billing for most of the first-half and scored a goal worthy of a side with table-topping ambitions. Tudur Jones picked up a loose ball 25 yards out and barely stopped to think; seconds later Jamie MacDonald was picking out the ball from the back of the net. The fact that the win was snatched from them at the death angered Butcher, as did the manner of the equaliser, from a penalty award that left the manager unconvinced.
To be fair, Tudur Jones himself sounded completely at ease with Collum’s decision when asked about it afterwards. Bucher admitted he had been too far away to properly judge. He seemed to want a moan for a moan’s sake.