Hearts taught lesson by league leaders Inverness

David Smith is kept in check by Richie Foran and David Raven. Picture: SNS
David Smith is kept in check by Richie Foran and David Raven. Picture: SNS
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THERE will be more days like this over the course of the season for Hearts. Days in which their young players need to dig deep merely to limit the scale of defeat, and the true magnitude of their fight against relegation becomes apparent.

Scorer: Inverness CT - McKay 10, 32

Referee: J Beaton

Attendance: 4,034

Yet no matter how disappointed those players initially were at the end of Saturday’s match, on reflection they will be able to learn a lot, and take pride in the way they played. Better, vastly more experienced Hearts teams have travelled to Inverness and lost. Worse Caley Thistle teams than this one have taken all three points against the Edinburgh club.

Realistically, then, this was not a bad result for Gary Locke’s team. Anything taken from this match, and the next one at home to Celtic, was always going to be a bonus. If they lose to the champions they will have won two, drawn one and lost three from their first six games: mid-table form which is more than respectable for a squad as callow as this.

Just as significantly, that squad is maturing by the match. There was a first start here for Jordan McGhee, and league debuts off the bench for Sam Nicholson and Gary OIiver.

There will not be so many days like this for Caley Thistle. In most other matches which they dominate, they can expect either to convert a few more of their chances and win by five or six, or pay for their profligacy by allowing opponents to snatch a point.

Billy McKay alone could have doubled the home team’s tally. “He scores when he wants,” the matchday announcer declared when he read out the teams and again after each goal, but the contrary evidence was there for all to see – as it was in last season’s League Cup semi-final between the clubs, when the striker missed an open goal.

McKay’s biggest opportunity to complete his hat-trick came from the penalty spot late in the game, after Jamie Hamill had been sent off for hand-ball. Jamie MacDonald saved the softly-struck spot-kick, and the Hearts goalkeeper also thwarted the goalscorer on several other occasions, notably when a careless back-pass by Scott Robinson put McKay through on goal.

MacDonald had to be on outstanding form to help shore up a defence which had required reorganisation even before Hamill’s late dismissal. Danny Wilson and Kevin McHattie were out after being red-carded against Aberdeen, so Hamill dropped back from midfield, taking on Wilson’s role as captain and McHattie’s as left-back.

Wide midfielder Jamie Walker had what turned out to be Hearts’ best scoring chance of the game when he sent a shot crashing off the post in the first half, and he also had the first attempt on goal in the opening minutes as the visiting team began confidently. But it was not long before Caley Thistle showed how lethal they can be, as McKay opened the scoring at the end of a swift move down the right. David Raven and Aaron Doran combined, and McKay met the latter’s cross first time with a shot which gave MacDonald no chance.

The second goal was messier, but one in which McKay again showed how lethal he can be. Hamill slowed him down when he made the initial counter-attack from a Ross Draper clearance, but McKay got a pass away to Doran, who shot from the right of the box. Robinson blocked, James Vincent failed to connect correctly with a shot on the turn, and Brad McKay could only prod the ball into the path of namesake Billy, who scored with a calm, right-foot shot.

The composure the striker showed then deserted him and several of his team-mates after the interval, though it might all have been different had Gary Warren scored with a header a couple of minutes into the second half. Instead, his effort came back off the crossbar, and that set the tone for a half in which Inverness were superior in almost every aspect bar scoring.

McKay had one shot off target, one saved by MacDonald and a third blocked by Brad McKay. Captain Richie Foran had a wickedly-swerving shot from long range saved by MacDonald. And then came the penalty.

There was widespread mystification at first when the referee blew the whistle after a goalmouth scramble, followed by Hamill’s consternation when he realised he was being sent off. The captain for the day thought he had made contact with his head not his hand, and in any case it had seemed impossible for him to get out of the way of a ball which was directed towards goal from no more than a yard in front of him.

MacDonald’s save boosted his team’s morale for the closing stages, and by then they must have felt that if one lucky break had gifted them a goal, they could yet snatch something from the match. Such an outcome, however, would have been a travesty. The league leaders were more than deserving of victory, and if they can add some clinical finishing to their other talents should remain genuine contenders for a top-four finish.