Hearts fight back to earn a draw at Ross County as defensive frailties are laid bare

They remain unbeaten in the Premiership but Hearts were forced to work exceedingly hard for a point in Dingwall against winless Ross County.

Liam Boyce and Stephen Kingsley both scored for Hearts in Dingwall.

Robbie Neilson’s side found themselves 2-1 down at half-time after Liam Boyce’s opening goal was overturned by two Blair Spittal strikes. Stephen Kingsley’s second-half free-kick earned a draw for the journey back to Edinburgh.

This was the first of three games from which Hearts need a decent points total if they are to challenge near the top of the league after gaining promotion from the Championship. They host Livingston and Motherwell in their next two fixtures and there was no question they created plenty chances to win in the Highlands.

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It must be said that Malky Mackay’s resilient County side could also have fashioned three points, with only John Souttar’s late goalline block preventing a winner for substitute Joseph Hungbo.

Hearts switched from their previous 3-4-3 system to a back four for this trip north and toiled to contain the home side when dark shirts poured forward. Nonetheless, they carried a real attacking threat throughout the 90 minutes and were disappointed to score only twice.

When Gary Mackay-Steven’s pass from the left found Boyce on nine minutes, the Northern Irishman produced a straightforward low finish beyond Ash Maynard-Brewer into the County net.

The common football theory that a team is never more vulnerable than after scoring was proved when the hosts equalised immediately. Spittal found himself crowded on the edge of the opposition penalty area, however he managed to squeeze an accurate low shot through a gap into the bottom corner.

Hearts’ defensive insecurities resurfaced repeatedly during a very open first 45 minutes. Reinstated striker Armand Gnanduillet saw two efforts saved by Maynard-Brewer, while County forward Jordan White needed his head bandaged following an aerial challenge with Craig Halkett.

Seconds later and doubtless still feeling the effects, White could only kick fresh air from Ross Callachan’s low delivery and then the midfielder lifted a cushioned effort over the crossbar. Hearts broke forward before Mackay-Steven sent a gilt-edged chance into the Jail End from Gnanduillet’s lay-off.

It was a moment they rued when County moved ahead near half-time. Callachan’s through pass found Charles-Cook for a run and cutback which Spittal converted from ten yards with the aid of a deflection. Despite appeals from the away camp for a foul in the build-up, the goal stood.

The Australian midfielder Cameron Devlin replaced Mackay-Steven for his Hearts debut early in the second half and looked a usefully-energetic presence. County also withdrew goalscorer Spittal, presumably because of a knock.

With Hearts needing a goal, Kingsley produced a perfect free-kick on 66 minutes. His curling left-footed strike over the wall from 22 yards restored parity and set the tone for a fascinating ending in Dingwall. The decibel level in the away end rose in expectation.

Substitute Jamie Walker stung Maynard-Brewer’s fingertips and there were loud appeals in stoppage-time for handball in the penalty area by Hungbo. A late break ended with Hungbo’s shot cleared off the goal line by Souttar.

Ross County (4-2-3-1): Maynard-Brewer; Burroughs, Iacovitti, Baldwin, B Paton; Tillson, H Paton; Spittal (Robertson 56), Callachan (Watson 82), Charles-Cook (Hungbo 89); White.

Hearts (4-1-4-1): Gordon; Moore, Halkett, Souttar, Kingsley; Baningime; McKay, Woodburn (Walker 65), Boyce, Mackay-Steven (Devlin 56); Gnanduillet.

Attendance: 3,802.

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