With a bit of luck – Caley Thistle hit wood four times – and a lot of organisation by the likes of Danny Wilson plus some formidable goalkeeping by Jamie McDonald, Hearts’ sheer courage gained them a draw when at one point it looked as though Inverness were going to pummel them.
With David Smith, Jason Holt and Jamie Walker out injured, and Kevin McHattie and Callum Paterson suspended, the paucity of Hearts’ playing resources was visible on the team sheet, as manager Gary Locke was able to name just five substitutes.
Inverness manager John Hughes, by contrast, had a full squad to select from, and chose to put club captain Richie Foran on the bench, despite speculation that he might be given his first start since injuring a shoulder in December.
Hearts almost scored on their first foray into the home half after four minutes, Ryan Stevenson finding space 25 yards out on the right and firing in a dipping, swerving left-foot shot which Dean Brill did well to tip over the bar. Almost immediately at the other end, Marley Watkins sent a low fizzer just wide of Jamie MacDonald’s left-hand post.
Inverness were dominant early in terms of possession and territory, but Hearts were keeping it tight at the back, restricting the home team to a couple of long-distance off-target efforts, before Caley Thistle really started to turn the screw.
Billy McKay loves to score against Hearts – he had five goals in three league matches before yesterday – and looked to have notched another after 12 minutes, but the offside flag had been raised long before the ball hit the net.
How the Hearts goal survived intact in the 16th minute is a mystery. David Raven’s audacious chip shot from 20 yards came back off the bar, and Graeme Shinnie reacted fastest to send in a shot which rebounded to McKay. His acrobatic bicycle kick was goalbound until Brad McKay somehow got in the road.
Two minutes later, the Inverness pressure almost told when Gary Warren powered in a header that flew just over the bar, and after 22 minutes, a superb run and cross by Watkins saw Greg Tansey pile in a diving header which McDonald clutched in spectacular style.
Just before the half-hour, Watkins bisected the Hearts’ defence with a peachy pass that put McKay clear on the angle of the six yard box, but McDonald hurled himself into the path of the striker’s shot. Jordan McGhee then did the heroics, blocking a Watkins shot after a superb move.
The woodwork also intervened for Hearts, Gary Warren sending in a header which Watkins knocked on to the bar, McKay also finding the bar a second later with his attempt to net the rebound.
After 43 minutes, the woodwork saved Hearts again, Tansey’s ferocious drive rebounding off the right hand post with McDonald beaten.
If this had been an Olympic figure skating contest, Inverness would have been carding perfect sixes, but football games are won by goals, not judges’ opinions, and the longer the match went on, the more frustrated the home fans became, especially when Hearts finally started to string some passes together.
Hearts enjoyed more luck after 53 minutes when referee Craig Thomson ignored a penalty area handball by Jamie Hamill, judging that the defender had not deliberately handled Billy McKay’s shot.
Hamill then went upfield and fired a low shot just past Brill’s right post, and all of a sudden Hearts were looking much more threatening, though had Tansey’s powerful shot after 65 minutes been 12 inches further right, Inverness would have had the goal they deserved.
Paul McCallum became the first player to be booked after a heavy challenge on Brill, which showed that Hearts were capable of getting upfield. Caley Thistle ruled the roost, however, though they could make nothing of a succession of corners after the 70-minute mark.
With Richie Foran on and Caley Thistle pushing for the winner, the danger was that the visitors might break away and Sam Nicholson twice did that, Hamill ending the moves on both occasions with fierce shots, one over the bar and the other deflected wide.
A Shinnie corner after 82 minutes saw Ross Draper head tamely wide, and as the home side continued to press, at one point all 11 Hearts players were in their own box.
Yet Hearts were still a danger, and Tansey went into the book for hauling back Stevenson when the Hearts player looked to be going clear on goal. And when McCallum found space in the box in the final minute, he looked sure to head Stevenson’s cross home, only for Brill to knock it wide.
Gary Locke thought a draw was a fair result, but John Hughes added: “On another day we could have won it convincingly.”
Teams, subs, bookings
Inverness: Brill, Raven, Shinnie, Draper, Warren, Meekings, Watkins, Tansey, McKay, Vincent (Foran, 74), Doran.
Subs not used: Esson, Ross, Devine, Tremarco, Williams, Polworth.
Booked: G Tansey.
Hearts: MacDonald, McGowan, McGhee, Robinson, McKay, Wilson, Carrick (King, 74), Hamill, McCallum, Stevenson, Nicholson.
Subs not used: Ridgers, Holt, Oliver, Beith.
Booked: S Robinson, P McCallum
Referee: C Thomson