WHILE so much of the country concerned itself with Scottish Cup action, the holders were forced to focus their attentions elsewhere. This season now represents different challenges.
Scorers: Ross County - Quinn (20), Vigurs (90); Hearts - Ngoo (31), Walker (63)
Referee: S Finnie
With a spot in the League Cup final already secured, Hearts are now concentrating on finding a way to propel themselves up the SPL standings. They managed to do that on Saturday, even if losing a last-gasp goal stilted the advance a smidgen.
Having come from behind, they had edged in front in the second half but a resilient Ross County hit back at them in stoppage time to deny them all three points.
“It was a good game but we were obviously unlucky to lose that goal in the last minute,” said young Callum Tapping, one of seven players aged under 21 who started for the Tynecastle club. “That is always a letdown. But it was a good performance from all the boys but especially the young boys.”
Against a Ross County side who have made an impressive start to 2013, unbeaten in their five games since the turn of the year, taking 11 points from a possible 15, the Hearts youngsters did not look out of place. Manager John McGlynn had experienced men at his disposal but leaving the likes of Andy Driver, Mehdi Taouil, John Sutton and Darren Barr on the bench, he kept faith with the starlets who have performed so well in recent games.
“It’s always good to play but they [the experienced players on the bench] are always knocking at the door, and we know we have to do well and it keeps me on my toes,” said Tapping, well aware that there is a cup final on the horizon and not willing to acquiesce his position in the team before that.
From the full-backs to the midfeld, all the way up front to latest signing Michael Ngoo, the kids recovered from a bright start by the hosts to take the game to them, they didn’t lose their composure when going a goal behind against the run of play and actually went on to not only restore parity but to take the lead. It was an impressive showing and was only slightly marred by the loss of the late goal which forced them to settle for the draw.
That inability to see out the game had as much to do with County’s tenacity and determination to keep playing the game rather than watching the clock but it will be another lesson in the Hearts learning experience. The good thing for John McGlynn and the Hearts support is that they seem to be keen and attentive students.
The goals came from 19-year-old Jamie Walker and 20-year-old Liverpool loanee Ngoo but in the heart of the battle, it was the burgeoning talents of Jason Holt and Callum Tapping, combining with the more experienced Ryan Stevenson who kept things moving.
“I’m enjoying it,” added Tapping. “It’s been a great experience so far and hopefully that can continue. It always a help to play with boys you know already and the older ones have been brilliant with us and help us along – guys like Webby [Andy Webster], Stevo [Ryan Stevenson], [Marius] Zaliuskas, everyone.”
Hearts had only four survivors in their line-up from the first head to head between these two, in October. But Ross County had done some reshuffling of their own. Active in the transfer window, they are readdressing their goals for the season, switching their attentions from simple survival to making a concerted assault on the top six. This point keeps them in the hunt.
Both contributed in what was an open and entertaining game. Highly competitive and attack-driven, they ensured the play raged from end to end and the momentum ebbed and flowed. Having started the brighter, County allowed Hearts back into things before shocking them with the opener. It came after a 20th-minute corner by the impressive and unrelenting Iain Vigurs was finally skelped goalwards by Rocco Quinn from the edge of the box. The strike looked to be on target anyway but benefitted from a deflection en route, leaving Jamie MacDonald no chance. Hearts equalised in the 31st minute and Ngoo deserves enormous credit. With a very fine touch for a 6ft 4in striker, he took control of a Stevenson ball midway into the Ross County half and used his strength and nous to hold off Scott Boyd and finish clinically.
The ball flighted into the Ross County box in the 63rd minute was undoubtedly meant for him as well but it soared just too high and it was Walker who nipped in behind him to header into the net.
But with the game into stoppage time and with both sides having chopped and changed personnel in the hope of aiding their cause, it was the home side who got their preferred conclusion, when Vigurs followed in after Hearts struggled to clear their decks and an initial shot was blocked and he slammed it through the assembled masses and into MacDonald’s goal.
“We are undefeated this year and we wanted to continue that, “said Vigurs, “and a last-minute goal shows how resolute we are as a team. We knew we needed to keep picking up points but they are a good side with some good young players and that was a good point.”