IF HEARTS go down, they will go down fighting. In an absorbing match at Tynecastle, Gary Locke’s young team scored two equalisers, the second of them three minutes from the end, to secure a point that reduced to 12 the gap between themselves and Kilmarnock.
Scorers: Hearts - Paterson (28), Stevenson (89); Ross County - Carey (23), De Leeuw (50)
Bookings: Ross County - Kettlewell, Brittain (sent off), Klok, Carey
Playing against ten men for the last 27 minutes, after Richie Brittain was sent off for a second bookable offence, an onslaught by the home side seemed to be running out of time when David Smith swung in a corner, and Danny Wilson’s header went in off the left-hand post.
Having gifted County the lead, and done precious little to prevent the visitors’ second, the Edinburgh side nearly claimed all three points when Callum Paterson, scorer of their first goal, crashed his stoppage-time header off the crossbar.
That left them with mixed feelings as they headed for the dressing room. They know that, if they are to escape relegation by overcoming their 15-point handicap, they need wins, not draws, especially when the opponents are down to ten men and without an away victory all season.
“One part of the play which disappointed me was that they [County] didn’t have to work hard for their goals,” said Locke. “The two goals we lost were poor. But in the second half, the players never let their heads drop. They kept going and thoroughly deserved the equaliser.”
Brittain’s dismissal means that County have had three men sent off in their last two matches, but their manager Derek Adams was full of praise for his team, who also hit the bar in the first half. “It was our best performance of the season offensively,” said the manager, whose men took full advantage of their hosts’ generosity in the first half.
Hearts have enough problems to overcome without adding a few more of the self-inflicted variety. They had enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges, the highlight of which was Jamie Walker’s deflected shot, but a midfield mix-up presented County with the opening goal.
Jamie Hamill appeared all set to sweep up a loose ball when Callum Tapping stepped in to take charge, a show of confidence by the youngster that proved to be hopelessly misplaced. Tapping’s next touch was an excruciating pass, intercepted by Graham Carey, who tucked it under the goalkeeper from just inside the box. Hamill, it seemed, was itching to have a go at his teenage team-mate, but decided instead to settle for a long, lingering stare. Given what was to follow, it turned out to be one of his better decisions.
Much to Tapping’s relief, Hearts produced an immediate response. Scott Robinson’s header, after a cross by Hamill, was touched wide before a corner led to the home side’s equaliser. The ball had been only partially cleared when Paterson, who has a penchant for explosive finishes, hooked one into the bottom corner with his left foot.
That ought to have settled Hearts, but just when they should have been kicking on, they lost their bearings again. Maybe it was the dizzying effect of seeing Rocco Quinn batter a 20-yard shot off the underside of the crossbar, after which Hamill demonstrated that he, too, was capable of committing a howler. This time it was his passback that picked out an opponent, but as Kevin Luckassen homed in on goal, Jamie MacDonald made himself big enough to save. By the time MacDonald was tipping over a side-footed effort by Quinn – setup by Gary Glen, the former Hearts striker – the home side were on the ropes.
The half-time whistle came at a good time for Hearts, but the chance to regroup was not taken. Four minutes after the restart, they conceded a second, again too easily. This time, Glen and Luckassen had freedom in the box to exchange passes before setting up Melvin de Leeuw, who converted with a low, left-foot drive.
Hearts had the opportunity to equalise for a second time, when Jordan McGhee headed over a free kick, whipped in by Kevin McHattie, but the biggest development in their favour was Brittain’s red card. Already booked for a first-half foul on Walker, the County captain was given a second yellow for bringing down the same player. As Brittain walked up the tunnel, Mark Brown got down low to push Hamill’s free kick round the post.
In what remained of the game, the balance of play reflected Hearts’ numerical advantage. Walker pulled a shot wide from 20 yards, Stevenson’s driven free kick was saved and then, just when it looked as though their time was up, Wilson stepped up to the plate.