Hearts last night booked qualification for Europe just a year after winning the Championship and blazing a trail back into the Premiership.
But Robbie Neilson’s side missed a glorious chance to crank up the pressure on second-placed Aberdeen, and are eight points behind the Dons in the chase for the prime Europa League spot.
On a night when neither side rose above the mundane, confirming the inevitable was cause only for minor celebration, although the visitors certainly enjoyed the better of what few chances there were.
In short it was dire stuff, although neither side lacked effort and commitment.
Hearts’ main focus had been eating into that nine-point gap on Aberdeen following last Friday’s win against the Dons at Tynecastle.
The incentives were plain. Financial gain for club and players, a longer summer rest and one round fewer to navigate in the Europa League qualifying stages. But the expected urgency and desire from the capital side was never apparent in a flat 90 minutes full of endeavour but characterised by a lack of anything resembling attacking guile.
On a blustery evening, an unchanged Inverness had been looking to build on a fine win at Dundee United the previous weekend, while coming to terms with their first top-six absence in three seasons.
The fixture had been a long time coming – shifted three times previously for varying reasons since the original 12 January date.
Hearts made three changes with Miguel Pallardo, Arnaud Djoum and Dario Zanatta replacing Prince Buaben, Sam Nicholson and Igor Rossi.
For all the stakes remained high, what unfolded was far from thrill-a-minute, despite plenty of earnest commitment from both teams. The troublesome wind certainly played a part in the poor spectacle.
With only a couple of minutes gone Juanma managed to find a little bit of space in the home penalty area but was blocked superbly by Inverness captain Gary Warren
Pallardo was on receiving end of a ferocious, clattering tackle from Ross Draper, which the referee missed before halting play for the crumpled midfielder.
Jamie Walker was then booked for a dive in the Caley Thistle box as Carl Tremarco snapped at his heels. Hearts were consistently pegging the Highlanders back into their own half, but Walker’s wild attempt from distance, just after the half hour, summed up the lack of precision.
It was certainly meaty and committed. Vigurs and Juwon Oshaniwa clashed accidentally and writhed in pain and Pallardo, injured earlier in that Draper challenge, exited seven minutes before the break to be replaced by Callum Paterson.
Josh Meekings then drove forward on the right, three minutes before the break, and lashed in a 30-yard strike that keeper Neil Alexander did well to tip over for a corner.
The two sides struggled to ignite the second half.
Arnaud Djoum tried to inject some finesse with a surging run. The pass he released was excellent and had substitute Abiola Dauda racing through on home keeper Owain Fon Williams. One slightly heavy touch, though, proved enough to allow the Welshman to clear the danger.
The hosts were the team who enjoyed the better of the closing stages but all they had to show for it was a correctly chalked off James Vincent finish and a mis-hit Danny Williams shot into Alexander’s arms.
Referee: D Robertson
INVERNESS CT: Fon Williams; Meekings, Warren, Devine, Tremarco; Polworth, Draper, Tansey, Vigurs; Mbuyi-Mutombo (Vincent 46), Storey (D Williams 76). Subs not used: Esson, R Williams, Foran, Horner, Hughes.
HEARTS: Alexander; Souttar, Ozturk, Augustyn, Oshiniwa (Nicholson 81); Pallardo (Paterson 38), Djoum; Zanatta (Dauda 65), Kitchen, Walker; Juanma. Subs not used: Hamilton, Reilly, McGhee, Liam Smith.