Ghosts of Christmas past for Hearts - but Jambos prevail despite verbal rammy
It was like being visited by the ghost of Christmas past as covid reprised its role as the world’s most miserable bouncer, denying fans live football and leaving grounds up and down the country empty and managers’ and players’ shouts echoing.
If that was a reminder of last season, so too was the way Hearts’ afternoon evolved. Looking every inch the superior side in the first half, they should have been even further ahead given the quality chances they conjured up but, in the second half, they struggled to maintain that intensity, as passes went wayward and they were pushed deeper and deeper by a more lively Ross County side, who knew that they could make things tricky if they were able to stem Hearts’ attacking flow and pile more pressure on the defence.
The game plan almost paid off and, having pulled one back in the 72nd minute, after a Samuel Hungbo cutback allowed Jordan White to score off the post, they came close to heading back up north with a share of the spoils as Hearts clung on for a 2-1 win.
It was a situation that seemed unthinkable as Hearts blasted out of the blocks, and opened the scoring in the fourth minute of the match.
The sort of goal that would have raised the rafters had the 20,000 capacity stadium been rammed full with the usual Boxing Day crowd.
Ben Woodburn was the supplier as he played the ball back to Aaron McEneff. His side-footed effort was blocked but Michael Smith followed up and slotted the rebound between goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw and the near post to make it 1-0.
It was just the start as Hearts pulled together one of their best 45 minutes of one and two touch passing football. Keeping the ball moving well, switching direction, showing desire on and off the ball one, it was an impressive response to the eerie silence and the accuracy of the play, left an energetic County side chasing shadows.
All that was missing was the additional goals to bury the visitors. But, despite a nervy conclusion to the contest, they still managed to dig out the victory and head into the winter break on the back of five wins from the last eight games and five points clear of the chasing pack in third place.
There were chances for Woodburn, Barrie McKay, McEneff, while Smith missed an even better opportunity than the one he stuck away and John Souttar was denied by the bar.
A second goal did come their way eventually and it was a delight as a pinpoint Peter Haring long ball was brought down immaculately by Woodburn who then drove at goal and beat Laidlaw with a clinical finish.
Combine that advantage with the fact that there was no crowd to issue a wake up call when things started to get sloppy and Hearts energy and drive waned in the second half and County, who had nothing to lose by going at them, made things tough.
Unsettled by a switch up in defence after Craig Halkett hobbled off with an ankle injury, there was an element of relief in the home ranks come the final whistle.
A final hurrah from County saw an effort skim past the post while corners caused mild chaos, and a verbal rammy between Taylor Moore and Souttar.
But, three points will always soothe those kinds of arguments.