In the first half of the season, any Premiership point collected on their travels was generally viewed as a positive accomplishment by Hearts. Back in September, for instance, a 1-1 draw against a struggling Partick Thistle side at Firhill was deemed to represent a step in the right direction early in Craig Levein’s reign as manager.
Their gradual improvement over the past few months, however, has elevated them to a level where a draw with Ross County in Dingwall can now be rendered a cause for disappointment.
After getting their noses in front when Kyle Lafferty’s free-kick squirmed beyond Scott Fox early in the second half, Hearts were widely expected to kick on and win handsomely – as they had done at Hamilton Accies a few weeks previously – or at the very least shut up shop and see the game out with what has become their trademark this season – a clean sheet.
Bottom-of-the-table County, however, rallied strongly to equalise through Jason Naismith and looked the likelier winner. Hearts held firm to ensure that last month’s defeat at Celtic Park remains their only setback in the 16 matches they have played since losing to Kilmarnock at Murrayfield in early November. For a team who had hoped to chase down Hibs and climb into the top four, however, Saturday’s draw – overshadowed by the news that Arnaud Djoum will be out for the best part of eight months after ripping his Achilles tendon in an innocuous first-half incident – left a feeling of two points dropped from the visitors’ perspective.
“We can’t keep a clean sheet every week,” captain Christophe Berra said of a side aided by ten shutouts in their previous 12 matches. “We’ll take a point, but it wasn’t a great performance from us, let’s be honest. There was no energy first half and we looked a bit lackadaisical, really.
“You get used to not conceding and we’ve been 16 games with just one defeat. On paper, it is a good record but we wanted to win here. We didn’t but football is not always that easy.
“Credit to Ross County. They showed good energy and caused us a few problems second half but their causing us problems was maybe us giving the ball away in silly positions.”
In addition to falling nine points adrift of fourth-placed Hibs and allowing in-form Kilmarnock to move within three points of them with two games in hand, Hearts lost their most prominent central midfielder until well into next season. It was clear from the moment Djoum was unable to stand up after landing awkwardly while trying to chest the ball down that he was in severe trouble.
“He’s a really important player for us who was just getting back to his best,” Levein said of the stricken 28-year-old. “Dropping two points is something that happens occasionally but this is more disappointing. And the fact we’ll be without him the remainder of this season and the start of next. The older you are in these situations, you handle them slightly better, so he’s quite philosophical but he’s still really disappointed.”
A deflating match for Hearts was an uplifting one for County, who now look like a team equipped to climb off the bottom of the table after halting a 13-match run without a win when they crushed Dundee 4-1 earlier this month.
Their spirited finish, which had Hearts rocking, has given rise to optimism among Owen Coyle’s squad. After looking forlorn a few weeks ago, they now feel resurgent ahead of a four-game run in which they face the three teams directly above them.
The fit-again Greg Tansey, who belatedly made his debut as a second-half substitute after joining County on loan from Aberdeen in January, said: “We could look back on this as a very good point.
“For the majority of the first half, I thought we were the better team. They scored a great free-kick just after half-time, and we looked on the back foot for a bit. But we finished the game strong and hopefully we will take that into the next four games. It is a massive period for us.”