A callow Hearts side were always going to suffer some heavy dunts this season. Their haplessness in surrendering a win with the concession of 89th and 91st-minute goals in Dingwall on Saturday was, though, the footballing equivalent of being kicked in the most sensitive male region by an assailant wearing a diver’s boot.
Scorers: Ross County - De Leeuw (89), Brittain (90); Hearts - Paterson (24)
Referee: E Norris
If seeking an angle to offer something in the way of a soothing rub, it could be that the pain experienced in tossing away three points will have been so severe it will help prevent any repeat. That was the hope to which captain Danny Wilson was willing to cling in the aftermath. The Scotland international had the sort of afternoon that truly reflected the wild mood swings experienced by all those of a Tynecastle club disposition. He was serenaded in song by a travelling support, which is turning every away fixture into a Jamboree, throughout 80-odd minutes in which he was unflustered and effective.
However, when it comes right down to it, a largely ordinary Hearts were undone by an equally ordinary Ross County – despite the crass commendations their manager Derek Adams offered up about his team – because Wilson and Brad McKay were in the middle of their defence. Neither is the sort of grizzled, commanding centre-half that would have thrown himself to meet Richie Brittain’s right-wing cross that substitute Melvin De Leeuw headed in at the back post, or put pressure on Brittain when, two minutes later, he met a De Leeuw ball in from the left and seemed able to nonchalantly send an airy header high into the net from seven yards.
“All you can do is learn from it,” Wilson said. “If we’d had a win to talk about, it would have been all about how great the performance was. We’ve not, we’ve come away with no points, but hopefully we can make sure that doesn’t happen again this season. We played pretty well. But that’s football, that’s what happens sometimes. I was thinking a draw would be a bad result, so you can imagine how we are feeling now having lost that. We just have to dust ourselves down. The positive for us is that the games are coming thick and fast and we have a chance to rectify what happened on Wednesday [in the League Cup at home to Queen of the South]. But it’s a bit raw just now.”
Wilson’s candour in talking about County’s classic comeback could be read as a tacit acknowledgment of his team’s limitations. “I don’t really know what happened. That was the only real spell they had us under the cosh and perhaps we just couldn’t deal with it. Up until then, we dealt with most crosses and we just switched off for two and got punished. Up until that point, I thought we were the better team. You come up here and there are obviously going to be wee periods when you are under pressure. Until then we were good value for a win. We had a couple of chances on the counter-attack and didn’t take them. That will be the disappointment.”
Wilson refused to use lack of years or appearances as an “excuse” for the outcome. “We’ve had some games together now and we know the situation,” he said of the registration embargo and 15-point deduction that was triggered by the club’s plunge into administration. Gary Locke’s side have now lost their last three games, but considering two of these games were in the Highlands and the other was against Celtic, they have hardly been derailed in their monster mission to avoid relegation. Even old Hearts sides with seasoned pros on salaries that weren’t affordable could have lost three such encounters.
Moreover, the margin was so fine that there remains nothing to suggest Hearts cannot be competitive in this league. Essentially, in remaining nine points behind second-bottom St Mirren, they have been chipping away at the deficit at the rate of just under one point a game. Their stats should have looked a whole heap better after Callum Paterson clipped a deft volley into the net with an opportunity set up for him by a beezer of a ball in by Kevin McHattie. In the second period, Mark Brown denied Jason Holt with a superb block, and Paterson passed up a fine opening, but County didn’t appear to have the nous to make their increasing forays into their visitors’ final third count.
The fact that they eventually did just that, had Brittain afterwards sparing a thought for his team’s critics. These have been many and various in the early part of the season. Brittain accepted that losing four times this season, with four goal concessions at St Johnstone and against Dundee United the previous week might just have provided a degree of ammunition to those who do not fancy Adams’ side for another top-half finish. Yet, that County could claim three points from such a desperate situation was reason, he said, why those “writing off” his team should keep their powder dry.
“I know the characters that are in that squad. Someone will make something happen,” Brittain said. I know the quality that is in the squad. We have Graham Carey and had Melvin De Leeuw come on and score, I know there is quality in the squad and it’s up to everyone to try and pull something out of the bag. [People writing off the team] we will use as an inspiration, use as a motivation. It is a difficult league. On any given day, anyone can beat anyone.” Hearts discovered that wins can be changed to losses in given moments, never mind days.