AFTER a rousing five-game winning sequence at the start of their Premiership campaign, Hearts now find themselves needing to dig themselves out of a two-match losing rut ahead of a double-header against Aberdeen and Celtic later this month.
The Edinburgh side were deservedly beaten last night by an Inverness Caledonian Thistle team who tasted their first competitive victory since defeating Falkirk in the Scottish Cup final four months ago. For the second game running, the high-flying Edinburgh side had a man sent off. Unlike at Hamilton a fortnight previously, when Callum Paterson had been contentiously red-carded, the dismissal of Juwon Oshaniwa was deserved and had little bearing on the outcome. By that point, Hearts, who had been flat for most of the evening, already trailed to a goal from James Vincent, who was making his first appearance since scoring in the cup final. Debutant Miles Storey sealed a merited home win at the end in what was his first game since joining on loan from Swindon Town.
Fellow deadline-day recruit Tobi Sho-Silva, on loan from Charlton Athletic, was named on the bench. In addition to Vincent’s appearance, the hosts were further boosted by the return from injury of Josh Meekings. Young talisman Ryan Christie started his first match since signing for Celtic and being loaned back to the Highlanders.
The visitors also had a new face in their starting XI in the shape of former Dundee United, Peterborough and Coventry City midfielder Danny Swanson. Sean McKirdy, the 17-year-old homegrown midfielder, was handed his first start in the absence of Morgaro Gomis, who missed out due to a family bereavement.
Last night’s clash, which began under glorious Highland sunshine, represented the first of three consecutive Premiership matches against last season’s top three. Despite the idyllic conditions, neither side were able to generate any early rhythm. After a totally uneventful opening quarter of an hour, Juanma Delgado tried to get Hearts going when he nicked possession from the dithering Josh Meekings on the edge of the box. However, as he burst into the penalty area, the big Spaniard blotted his copybook when he tumbled far too easily, trying to win a penalty off Ross Draper, and was fortunate to escape a booking for diving.
Captain Alim Ozturk, who had earlier declared a desire to force his way into the Turkey national squad, had the first attempt of the match in the 19th minute, although his strike, from 35 yards out, sailed harmlessly past Owain Fon Williams’ left-hand post.
Inverness had their first notable shot at goal in the 26th minute but Greg Tansey’s low drive from 25 yards out, which took a deflection, was easily gathered by Neil Alexander.
Swanson, playing just behind Juanma in an advanced midfield role, looked lively whenever he got on the ball and after the new signing had a shot charged down on the edge of the box, Oshaniwa drove a low left-footed strike just past the near post in the 33rd minute.
Just before the break, Paterson collected the first booking of the night for a late tackle on Storey, although Neilson was clearly angered that what he felt was a foul on Nicholson had been missed seconds earlier. The mood of the Hearts head coach wasn’t improved by events four minutes into the second half, as Inverness made the breakthrough. Christie darted down the left, hit the bye-line, and drilled the ball across the face of goal for Vincent, who beat Oshaniwa to the cross and forced it into the net from a close range.
With Hearts struggling to get anything going in the attacking third, Neilson responded by sending on Billy King in place of the ineffective Osman Sow just before the hour mark.
However, the visitors could have found themselves further behind in the 62nd minute when Swanson was robbed of possession by Draper midway inside his own half. The Inverness midfielder charged into the Hearts box, but Swanson got back to redeem himself with a vital saving tackle. It was to be the debutant’s last involvement in the match as he was replaced in the 67th minute by Jamie Walker, whose start to the season has been disrupted by a niggling knee problem.
He immediately brought a bit of spark to Hearts’ play. After King shot over from the edge of the box in the 69th minute, Walker then drilled a low strike just from 25 yards out.
Inverness introduced Sho-Silva for his debut in the 73rd minute, but it was Hearts who started stepping up the pressure in search of an equaliser. Walker burst dangerously into the box and looked set for a clear shot at goal before David Raven got back to a make magnificent tackle. At the other end, Sho-Silva headed wide from a Storey cross. The Edinburgh side’s hopes of a fightback were all but ended with three minutes left when Oshaniwa was sent off after raising his hands to Sho-Silva in an off-the-ball altercation while defending a corner in the Hearts goalmouth.
The outcome was put beyond doubt when Storey drilled in from close range after latching on to an Iain Vigurs’ cross at the back post.
Inverness CT: Fon Williams, Raven, Meekings, Devine, Tremarco, Draper, Tansey, Vincent (Vigurs 77), Christie (Sho-Silva 73), Williams, Storey. Subs not used: Esson, Lopez, Foran, Wedderburn, Horner.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, Ozturk, Igor Rossi, Oshaniwa, Buaben, McKirdy (Reilly 78), Nicholson, Sow (King 60), Swanson (Walker 68), Delgado. Subs not used: Augustyn, Hamilton, Pallardo, McGhee.