Ross County 1 Hearts 2: Jambos maintain unbeaten run

Alim Ozturk, centre, celebrates after scoring to give Hearts a two-goal lead. Picture: SNSAlim Ozturk, centre, celebrates after scoring to give Hearts a two-goal lead. Picture: SNS
Alim Ozturk, centre, celebrates after scoring to give Hearts a two-goal lead. Picture: SNS
THERE were 1,391 Hearts fans singing their lungs out in the Dingwall sunshine and, after another sound victory, this is beginning to look like a Jambo bandwagon.

Next up for the unexpected league leaders are Partick Thistle and Hamilton Accies. While nothing can be taken for granted in this league, Celtic might have to tuck in patiently behind Robbie Neilson’s men for a few weeks yet.

Four wins from four is the kind of form second-tier champions tend to take into the top flight these days, momentum being infectious.

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It might have been very different had County’s Michael Gardyne earned a reward for a clever surge and strike early in the game, where veteran goalkeeper Neil Alexander made a crucial save.

County then lost what they will view as preventable early goals, albeit from a brilliant Osman Sow strike and Alim Ozturk’s second inside 14 minutes.

The Staggies didn’t buckle and retaliated before the break through a Liam Boyce penalty, but Hearts saw it out impressively.

Hearts’ stature, vocal backing, physicality and the creative skills of the likes of young Jamie Walker amount to a compelling package.

It lends them the appearance of a squad who can sustain a drive towards the top placings far longer than Accies did last season.

Head coach Neilson, though, is having none of it. Not yet at least.

“Look, it’s four games. We’ve won them, but it’s only four games,” a measured and contemplative Neilson remarked afterwards.

“We haven’t played an Aberdeen, Dundee United or Celtic. Once we get the full cycle, we can look at where we are. But at the moment, we come back in tomorrow morning and prepare for Partick next week.”

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County came into the game brimming with optimism, which soon evaporated under sunny skies.

Hearts, backed by that boisterous support, first had to weather the early storm. Gardyne’s left-foot snapshot after just four minutes had to be parried superbly by Alexander.

Exemplifying the home hunger, Boyce’s fierce strike from distance was then held by the Hearts goalkeeper three minutes later.

Just as the travelling support began to fall silent, Hearts mustered something special to rouse them.

Sow, starting in an unfamiliar wide-right role, gathered a pass just inside the County half and took off with pace and intent.

Leaving several blue shirts in his wake, the 25-year-old Swede sliced inside and on to his left foot. The 20-yard shot beat County keeper Scott Fox at his near post.

Three minutes later, County’s Chris Robertson – making his home debut after a summer move from Port Vale – pulled off a superbly-timed saving tackle on the lively Juanma in the box.

There was no such salvaging of the situation a minute later, though, as Hearts went two ahead.

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Walker’s long corner from the left found Callum Paterson unmarked at the back of the box. Through a crowded penalty area, his powerful volley was helped into the net by Ozturk’s flick close in.

County weren’t for crumbling, though, and that strength of character paid off seven minutes before the break as referee Bobby Madden pointed to the spot.

Rafa De Vita’s free-kick swerved in dangerously to the Hearts penalty area and Igor Rossi was adjudged to have fouled Jackson Irvine at the back post. Rossi escaped with a caution, but the punishment came in the shape of the Boyce spot-kick expertly tucked in, with Alexander sent sprawling the wrong way.

It was the kind of lifeline that can change games completely but the transformation did not translate into a major County resurgence.

Hearts held the upper hand, increasingly, towards and after the hour mark, with County at times living dangerously.

Firing towards that big Hearts support, County pressured in the last quarter, with a Gardyne free-kick scudding against the Hearts wall.

It broke to Marcus Fraser on the right and his centre drew a dramatic overhead kick from Boyce. The connection was sweet, but skewed wide.

Another Boyce cross entering the last seven minutes held too much fizz for his strike partner Curran as it flashed across the penalty area.

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Hearts had good fortune, too, in stoppage time as Ozturk blatantly tugged down Boyce as he threatened to spin towards goal, drawing only a booking.

There was obvious frustration for home manager Jim McIntyre, particularly with Hearts’ second goal.

Praising his team’s spirit and play up until the final third, it was clear best-laid plans had failed to come to fruition to prevent Hearts’ goals.

“I’m really disappointed as I thought we had every bit as much of the game as Hearts did,” McIntyre said.

“The goals we give away are criminal. Considering we’d watched their corner in previous games, that was really disappointing.

“It was schoolboy from us and that comes back to haunt you.”

Ross County: Fox; Fraser, Robertson, Davies, Foster (Reckord 63); Gardyne, McShane (Quinn 75), Irvine, De Vita (Dingwall 62); Boyce, Curran. Subs not used: Bachmann, Graham, Boyd, Murdoch.

Hearts: Alexander; Paterson, Ozturk, Rossi Branco, Oshaniwa; Sow (Reilly 58), Buaben (McGhee 54), Gomis, Nicholson (King 69); Walker; Juanma. Subs not used: Hamilton, McHattie, Oliver, McKirdy.

Referee: B Madden.

Attendance: 4,806.