Hearts were in the Highlands and happily for head coach Robbie Neilson, their minds were not elsewhere.
With a big derby cup game just behind them, another one to come, the suspension and injury-hit Tynecastle side put everything into obtaining perhaps one of the best results of their season.
Almost as pleasing as the three points for Neilson was the clean-sheet secured by their cobbled together rearguard, which included three teenagers. John Souttar survived a shaky first half to excel in the second, with fellow 19-year-old Liam Smith playing his part in the final minutes, after replacing the injured Jordan McGhee, also 19.
A scrappy goal from Jamie Walker after 52 minutes set Hearts on their way and with the home side furiously pressing for an equaliser, the visitors broke up field to score twice more through substitute Abiola Dauda.
The Nigerian striker had a quiet debut in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Hibs but he certainly made his mark here in the 30 minutes he was on the park, notching his side’s second after 84 minutes and a remarkable third a minute from time.
It wasn’t pretty, but not that this was a surprise. A bobbly pitch didn’t help matters, neither did an overly fussy referee.
County started showing the most intent, partnering Liam Boyce, who extended his contract to 2018 on the day of the match, and debutant David Goodwillie together up front.
Boyce rattled the bar at the start of the second-half and generally played with the zest of someone who feels comfortable in his surroundings. But it was Hearts who got the game’s opener, completely against the run of play, when Jackson Irvine’s defensive header struck Walker and went in.
Then Dauda, who replaced Arnaud Djoum after 61 minutes, grabbed his brace, shooting precisely into the corner after 84 minutes from 16 yards and then curling an effort past Scott Fox five minutes later. He certainly put Goodwille in the shade.
It was intriguing to assess how the one-time Scotland international fared. Shifted from Aberdeen to the Highlands with the task to resurrect his career, the early signs were not promising. He kicked one of his first attempts to pass straight out of play.
But playing with Northern Ireland international Boyce, he surely has every chance to shine, providing he is committed enough. He ran the channels well enough and looked eager to impress but it just didn’t quite happen for him last night.
Match fitness is of course an issue. However, he will surely be disappointed at being withdrawn for Alex Schalk after only 57 minutes, particularly with County in desperate need of a goal. Jim McIntyre, the County manager, had been stung into action by the shock of seeing his side concede having dominated so much of the game to that point.
With Irvine pushing on from central midfield in support of Boyce and Goodwillie, County had hitherto seemed every inch a team with top four as well as League Cup aspirations. Even after the opening goal, they continued to threaten most.
Goodwillie’s big opportunity had arrived just after the half hour mark after Irvine picked up a loose pass from Callum Paterson, Hearts’ skipper in the absence of the injured Alim Ozturk. When the ball arrived at Goodwillie’s feet, he steadied himself before aiming for the far corner of Fox’s goal.
It might have reached there had Souttar not managed to get the merest of touches with his quiff.
The young defender was fortunate earlier that Boyce could not make a firmer connection with Paul Quinn’s pass after he lost the striker on the edge of the six-yard box. As for Hearts, they were finding it difficult to get anywhere as near to Fox, the County keeper.
Djoum, who scored such a scorching opener in Sunday’s Edinburgh derby, had not brought his shooting boots with him this time – one of his first off-target shots cleared the roof at the Jail End. But he was not alone in such waywardness.
Andrew Davies almost looped a header in a la Jason Cummings as County pressed for the opener. Irvine, meanwhile, should have done better than when he met McShane’s header at speed in the box.
Such was County’s dominance at times it did not even seem like they would be made to rue these missed opportunities. But they were, three times over. There was little in they way they opened the second half to suggest they were going to concede the game’s opener rather than score it, particularly when Boyce saw his curling shot, after a one-two with Irvine, smack off the bar three minutes after the re-start.
Not long afterwards, after 52 minutes, Hearts grabbed their precious goal after Cowie’s corner caused a stramash in the box. Irvine’s header seemed to strike Walker on the shoulder before going in. The 300 or so travelling fans could not believe their luck as they celebrated a goal scored under their noses. And they were rubbing their eyes with disbelief the final ten minutes as Dauda guaranteed their journey was worth it with two expertly taken goals to seal the points.
Referee: S McLean
Ross county: Fox, Foster, Davies, Quinn, Fraser, McShane, M Woods, Irvine (Franks 78), Gardyne, Boyce, Goodwillie (Schalk 59). Subs not used: Reckord, Robertson, Graham, Murdoch, G Woods.
Hearts: Alexander, Oshaniwa, Souttar, McGhee (Liam Smith 83), Paterson, Nicholson, Cowie, Pallardo, Walker (Zanatta 75), Djoum (Dauda 62), Delgado. Subs not used: Hamilton, Reilly, Beith, Buchanan.
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