Inverness CT 2 Dods (55), Wilson (73 pen)
Referee: C Thomson. Attendance: 9,822
HAVING defeated both Edinburgh clubs as well as drawing with Rangers in collecting an unexpectedly rich haul of seven points from their last three league games, Inverness all but banished any thoughts of relegation thanks to a workmanlike victory at Tynecastle over a Hearts side which posed little in the way of a goal threat.
Well organised, strong and determined, the Highland club carried too much physical presence for a group of young players whose concentration slipped in the second half of a dour struggle. Without three of their most experienced back four, Hearts were always likely to be vulnerable at set-pieces and that’s how it turned out with Darren Dods opening the scoring thanks to a fine header from a free-kick and Barry Wilson converting a penalty-kick after he’d been fouled by Craig Gordon.
This latest win means Inverness are now 11 points clear of back-markers Dundee United with a game in hand. No-one in the Highlands is counting any chickens on that score, mind you, since the outstanding fixture is against Celtic on Wednesday evening. Having said that, the club’s rise up the SPL ladder has raised the possibility of challenging for a place in the top six, and Inverness can confront Celtic in a fairly relaxed frame of mind.
No-one would confuse Inverness’s earnest application with a celebration of free-flowing football, but they don’t shoot themselves in the foot too often and are well equipped to take advantage at set-pieces.
"The first half was horrible, you would get football stopped with that," admitted Wilson. "I think the pitch, which was bumpy and dry, played a part. But the second half was better and I think we deserved our win. There was a different pressure on us because we’re usually the underdogs. If you looked at the teams beforehand people would say this is a game Caley can go and win.
"We’ve gone six games in the league without losing and have just taken points from Hibs, Rangers and Hearts. The boys have taken a lot of confidence from that run and are edging towards achieving our first priority, which is to stay in the league. We play Celtic on Wednesday and have to look at that as a bonus game. I still think Celtic are the best team in Scotland and we have to be realistic. But we’ll approach the game with the right attitude."
As for Hearts, the fact a number of first-team regulars were laid low by a virus, couldn’t fully explain why this performance eventually dissolved into incoherence after the interval. Admittedly, the absence of genuine midfield players was a significant handicap, but the team lost its shape after a pivotal moment when Dennis Wyness missed the target with a free header in the six-yard box and Dods responded by giving Inverness the lead.
Undoubtedly the main consolation for the home side was how Hearts have unearthed a couple of outstanding teenage full-backs in Jason Thomson and Lee Wallace. The quality of 17-year-old Thomson’s debut performance was sufficient to suggest he will become a fixture in the side soon.
A promising centre-back who has proved an able deputy for Steven Pressley over the past month, Christophe Berra admitted he found the added challenge of playing in a back four with an average age of 19 a lot to ask against more seasoned opponents. "I don’t know what happened with the marking at the first goal and the second was due to a short pass-back from me," said the defender.
From Hearts’ perspective, of course, the loss of three points at home against a side in the bottom six could turn out to be damaging if they don’t qualify for European football next season. "No disrespect to the players I put out," argued John Robertson, the head coach, "but if that team had been put out in a league match before we played a cup tie then we’d have been fined for fielding an understrength side."
While Hearts were, indisputably, short of experienced players, the starting line-up against Inverness was the strongest available and showed three changes from the team which had played at Dunfermline the week before. Admittedly, Paul Hartley, Robbie Neilson and Jamie McAllister are all first-team regulars, but the side has struggled to score goals even with a full complement to choose from.
With just two goals in their last four SPL games it’s clear Hearts’ inconsistency from open play can’t be entirely explained away by the flu virus which laid low a number of key men on Saturday. Hearts have scored fewer goals than any other side in the top six and it was this shortcoming which cost them three points against Inverness.