EVEN before a ball was kicked in Dingwall on Saturday, Gary Locke had been expressing the view that his young Hearts squad were turning a corner. He had seen plenty of positives in the performance against Motherwell a couple of weeks ago and been impressed by the spirit in the ranks against St Johnstone last weekend.
Ross County 1-2 Hearts
Scorers: Ross County - Songo’o (45); Hearts - Paterson (37), Robinson (80)
Realistically, though, it was a corner they needed to negotiate a lot earlier in the season if relegation was to be staved off. While the escape act remains an arithmetic possibility, it no longer seems likely. Nobody at Hearts has thrown in the towel, but the pressure is certainly off.
“In a bad way the pressure has been lifted off us,” admitted Callum Paterson, who would rather every single point counted and that Hearts were breathing down the necks of second-bottom Partick Thistle instead of trailing 19 points behind with only 14 games to go. “It’s not good that the pressure is off, but in another way it is good and everybody is now performing to the best of our ability and we are relaxed and scoring goals. We have been told to go out and relax and enjoy the game and play the way we can and I think we did that.”
From the first minute to the last, they dominated the game against Ross County, giving a display that was, for the most part, composed, positive and determined and, in the end, it delivered more than three points. From the moment they entered administration there have been two real ambitions. The priority was always survival, the second goal was to wipe out the 15-point deduction imposed as punishment as quickly as possible. The draw with Derek Adams’ men back in November took them within touching distance, they finally edged nearer with a point against St Mirren in December and closer still when they rallied against St Johnstone last week for a last-gasp draw. While they would have wished to cross the zero points threshold long before February came looming into view, it will have come as a blessed relief to have finally done so. On Saturday, another point would have been enough, but from the outset it was clear that their intentions were grander. Without the suspended Ryan Stevenson, who chose to take in the Rangers-Arbroath match at Ibrox with his agent rather than support his team-mates in the Highlands, the predictions hadn’t been kind. While Locke was forced to rejig his threadbare squad, County have added half a dozen new faces since the transfer window opened and had taken ten points from 12 in recent weeks.
But within the first two minutes the visitors could have been two goals up. David Smith, playing on the right flank, sent in a cross for Sam Nicholson to greet. His shot went over the bar but it was a forewarning of the drive in the capital side. Seconds later those two linked up to feed Paterson but his effort fizzed narrowly wide.
The more carefree approach was evident on both wings as Nicholson and Smith gave the disconcerted Ross County rearguard a torrid time, while the men inside them pressed every ball and Dale Carrick and Paterson made themselves available through the middle.
Smith set up Carrick for the opener in the 12th minute but, stretching, he directed his header over the bar. Smith then had a double chance. The first was blocked by the home defence but, penned in, the ball again fell to Smith and from the edge of the box he forced a save from Michael Fraser. There was an appeal for a penalty as Nicholson’s 19th minute shot was blocked by Brian McLean but the referee was not convinced of any impropriety and Hearts had to try to find another way through.
In fact, they tried, tried and tried again, with Smith, Kevin McHattie and Carrick all probing for the opener. They couldn’t find the net and the growing list of missed chances may have provoked more doubts had they not also been so successful at limiting their rivals’ forays forward. With the final ball lacking, the hosts’ first real effort on goal only came after 30 minutes when Jordan Slew’s drive zipped just outside the post. But the goal finally arrived in the 38th minute. Smith was again the delivery man and when Brad McKay and Richard Brittain challenged for the header, the flick-on found Paterson who jabbed it over the line.
“We haven’t had much luck throughout the whole season,” said the scorer, “and I missed one in the first few seconds, Sam missed one and then it seemed like everybody else missed one, but then we started to click.”
County hit back seven minutes later, to head in at the interval all square, but that self-belief remained unshaken. “Even after their goal, we were still on top. It took a bit of the wind out our sails but we carried on and eventually got the winning goal,” said Paterson.
If Yann Songo’o, on loan from Blackburn Rovers, had given a mixed bag of a performance at the back, he redeemed himself with the equaliser. It would have been unfair on the Gorgie side if it had denied them all three points, though, and they made sure that wouldn’t be the case. While County had more possession., Hearts still created the better chances. The best fell to Nicholson but from under the bar he somehow contrived to miss the target.
But, rounding off a decent individual performance, Scott Robinson got the winner with 11 minutes remaining. Smith sent another ball in and when it broke, Robinson turned and hit a determined drive beyond Fraser. He was booked for his wild celebrations, as Hearts savoured their first win in more than two months.