Ross County 0 - 0 Hearts: Jambos gain ground but remain adrift at the bottom

Hearts hopes of a revitalising jaunt in the Highlands fell flat along with new Kosovan capture Donis Avdijaj as a sturdy and driven Ross County held the upper hand in Dingwall.

Steven Naismith has words with Ross County's Keith Watson during the match at Dingwall. Picture: SNS

It was another match without a morale-boosting win for both sides, but Hearts remained in far more perilous territory four points adrift at the foot of the table.

County, while the better side on the night, might rue a missed opportunity to put greater distance between themselves and the play-off zone.

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The Highland team were certainly superior, particularly throughout the first quarter of a sometimes scrappy and uninspired 90 minutes.

What flashes of creativity there were, came from the Staggies. Hearts remain an object of puzzlement, strangely flat and uninspired under Daniel Stendel’s new regime.

The Dingwall team sealed the capture striker Oli Shaw from Hibs for an undisclosed fee just two hours before kick-off, but the 21-year-old went straight onto the Staggies bench.

While his 11-month wait for a starting place continuing, Shaw’s capture – after 12 goals in 65 appearances for the Easter Road club – offered encouragement to a concerned Staggies’ support.

County made three changes from the team humbled away to Ayr United in the Scottish Cup, with Liam Fontaine suspended and Harry Paton and Richard Foster dropping to the bench.

In came captain Marcus Fraser, Keith Watson and Billy Mckay, while ex-Hearts midfielder Don Cowie returned to the bench after nine months out with a knee injury.

While County could reflect on only two wins in their last 15 matches, bottom-placed Hearts’ need was greater – after just two in the last 18 games.

Manager Daniel Stendel, buoyed by the first win of his Tynecastle career in the cup against Airdrie, gave new signing Donis Avdijaj a Dingwall debut.

The 23-year-old Kosovan, once commanding a 41 million euro release clause at Schalke,

Hearts were missing Michael Smith and Aaron Hickey through injury, while Sean Clare was suspended.

Euan Henderson dropped to the bench with Oliver Bozanic, Ben Garuccio, Clevid Dikamona and Avdijaj , wearing number 99, handed starts.

Hearts exerted initial pressure, but County were first to sting a glove, with Iain Vigurs and Josh Mullin combining to allow Mckay a snapshot from 20 yards that Joel Pereira dealt with comfortably.

County threatened again after 13 minutes, with Mullin making ground on the right.

The winger’s intelligent, low cut-back found Blair Spittal in an alarming amount of space outside the penalty area but Dikamona made a fine recovering block.

Less than a minute later, County might have gone ahead.

The lively Spittal again fed Mullin on the right and the ex-Livingston attacker’s cross found County’s new signing Coll Donaldson rising to bullet an eight-yard header just a fraction off target.

There was more concern for Hearts as John Souttar dallied on a long, high ball forward, only to see home striker Mckay nick in sharply past him and flick an attempt over Pereira, but short of the target.

Concerted home pressure was subduing the initially boisterous, 730-strong Hearts support, with Stendel’s high defensive line encouraging the Staggies to fire passes in behind.

A lull ensued, with County’s early effervescence fading a little.

Hearts’ Avdijaj forced a corner after 42 minutes, but County swiftly shut it down.

The lack of spark and invention in Maroon ranks was striking as the half petered out without a single attempt at County’s on-loan Chelsea keeper Nathan Baxter.

The second half was abruptly halted when Craig Halkett aggressively collided with County’s Jordan Tillson and came off worst, but recovered after treatment.

Another clash, this time between Steven Naismith and Donaldson, had the former crashing to earth but appeals for a penalty were dismissed by referee Gavin Duncan.

County tore forward on the counter and Lee Erwin split the Hearts’ defence on the right, before Pereira astutely smothered Mullin’s dangerous cross.

A Naismith one-two with Washington after 55 minutes saw the latter stub a woeful attempt over the bar but at least it was a shot off-target towards the Jambos’ travelling support.

Moments later, there was better as Naismith’s cutback set up new boy Avdijaj square on goal only for the Kosovan to slip at the vital moment and fail to recover in time.

Hearts made a double substitution just after the hour with Uche Ikpeazu replacing Avdijaj, who had shown only a brief couple of flashes of ability, while Dikamona made way for Henderson.

Away pressure ensued, with Ikpeazu his usual bustling presence, but still nothing in the way of convincing threat. Oliver Bozanic’s first-time attempt from 15 yards arcing aimlessly over the bar.

County looked solid. For the first time, though, an air of anxiety began to crackle among home supporters and players alike, with Donaldson turning one simple clearance for a corner.

A Naismith lay-off after an Ikpeazu tumble in the box ended with Ben Garuccio placing a 12-yard attempt off-target.

County brought on new signing Shaw against his former Edinburgh foes a short time before Canadian Harry Paton took a bow against his ex-club, replacing Spittal.

Entering the final 15 minutes, County had a hopeful penalty appeal waved away after the ball seemed to spin against a Hearts arm.

In the same move, Donaldson’s clever flick to the right of the box ended with Lee Erwin’s drive being saved superbly by Pereira.

County keeper Baxter made his first real save of the match after 88 minutes, smothering at Ikpeazu’s feet after more pressure.

It was scrappy and unsatisfying, though, as the last whistle sounded.