Hearts’ frustrations in front of goal continued as they were held to a goalless draw at home by Ross County.
Even with only three of the four floodlights casting light on to the Tynecastle turf it was still clear to see that Hearts merited more than a point from this one. But while Craig Levein has found a midfield blend capable of contributing some link-up play and guile, they now have to add goals to the mix.
There were chances – a lot of them – and Hearts enjoyed the greater possession and exerted the most pressure but, against a dogged and organised Ross County side, who were determined not to give them an easy way through, they lacked the killer final ball or clinical finish.
Cole Stockton had been given a starting berth, with Kyle Lafferty, who was weakened by a sickness bug that had seen him exiled from the training ground for most of the week, dropping to the bench. And, while the former Tranmere striker was able to hold up the ball and allow a revitalised Arnaud Djoum and Jamie Walker to run on to it and pose a danger from deep, no-one in maroon was able to find a way past Aaron McCarey in the visitors’ goal.
“I have contrasting emotions – delighted with the performance but disappointed with the result,” said Hearts manager Levein, who had greeted each foiled attempt with an increasing sense of incredulity and frustration in the home technical area. “We kept the pressure on but the goalkeeper made numerous really good saves.”
It was Owen Coyle’s men who had started with the greater intent, counter-attacking briskly in the opening period and coming close, as Alex Schalk cracked a fourth-minute effort off the post. The same player had the ball in the net later in that half but he was ruled to be offside, a decision the player and his manager vociferously contested.
“My analyst tells me he was clearly onside. Those are huge moments because goals change games and Hearts would have been forced to be more gung-ho in their play,” said the Dingwall gaffer. But it was day when the hosts battered the defences and still couldn’t shatter the Highlanders’ resolve.
In Jamie Brandon and Harry Cochrane, Hearts had some pace and verve, while Djoum and Walker were almost back to their best, taking responsibility and moving the ball as they pushed the team up the park, while, particularly in the first half, David Milinkovic was another focused offensive outlet.
The Gorgie club definitely remains a work in progress but there are signs that things may be beginning to click. The midfield that has been posted missing for most of the past couple of months is now offering some bite and creativity but the fact remains that they have now gone five games without a win and are still getting a crick in their necks looking up at the top six.
“Compared to last week this was a big step forward. That is how I want the team to play,” said Levein. “I would like some more goals obviously. But there is no point in sitting looking back on videos of people missing chances. It would just depress me and the players. Sometimes in football, and I have been here before, sometimes it is hard. Everything is difficult and that is the moments we are having just now. But Jon McLaughlin didn’t have a shot to save.”
Hearts, though, managed 23 shots, ten of them on target, none of them decisive, as Walker, Djoum, Isma Goncalves and Stockton all tested the Ross County rearguard. Even when the ball failed to stick to McCarey’s gloves, he was able to gather ahead of home strikers who should have been quicker to pounce.
Levein’s men had continued to plug away and late on McCarey was again heroic as he first foiled Christophe Berra and, having blocked the defender’s header, he then made sure to get his body behind the ball and deny Goncalves, and he again got his body in the way of a Don Cowie effort before the final whistle sounded.
The fact Goncalves was seen as the worst offender meant there was cheers when he was replaced by Lafferty late on but the reshuffle made no difference to the outcome.
It meant that Ross County headed back north happy with their afternoon’s rewards. For Hearts, it was another frustrating afternoon which came tantalisingly close to delivering more.