IF THERE was little to separate these sides throughout the first half, the difference in quality became more apparent in the second and nowhere was it more evident than in front of goal.
Hearts 0-2 Inverness CT
Scorers: Inverness CT - McKay (58, 83)
While Hearts’ approach remained positive, their ranks were devoid of the clinical finishing Inverness have bundled up in one impressive individual.
“I don’t think there was that much in it and it could have gone either way in the first half,” insisted Hearts midfielder Calum Tapping. “The only difference in the second half was the Billy McKay finishes at the end. It was that bit of quality – we had some crosses into the box but unfortunately we couldn’t do the same thing.”
It’s not something that Hearts manager Gary Locke can do much about. He can try to hone the goal instincts of those youngsters he has on the books but he can’t bring in anyone who is inherently imbued. His cause has been hampered further with injuries to two of only three players who have scored more than once on league duty this term. With Ryan Stevenson missing on Saturday with a torn hamstring, an Achilles niggle sustained in the first half meant that Jamie Walker had to be replaced at the interval and his manager says he is keeping his fingers crossed that doesn’t rule the winger out of the entire festive period.
It left the Tynecastle side with only four players on the field who have found the net even once so far this season and three of them were defenders.
It was always going to be difficult, therefore to find a way through the most miserly defence in the Premiership, one which has conceded just three goals at home and eight on their travels during this campaign. The Tynecastle club had lost that many in their past two games but with Jamie Hamill shifted to right-back, the defence was the most experienced area of the Gorgie formation and they worked hard to keep McKay at bay. But in the 58th and 83rd minute he found space and his shots found the net to give new manager John Hughes his first victory at the helm. It was a blow to the capital side who had applied pressure going forward but failed to get the break of the ball or react quickly enough when a slight opening presented itself.
With chances limited, it was heartbreak for the home side when McKay broke the deadlock. With Hamill going to ground too early, he stepped inside the defender and curled a lovely finish beyond the Hearts goalkeeper. Once again, it left the home side chasing the game and more vulnerable to a break as they made three changes in the hope of clawing something back.
Inverness, though, looked composed and in control and Graeme Shinnie and Watkins had efforts, while McKay was denied by the post before he rounded things off in the 83rd minute. Breaking at pace, Watkins played in McKay and his 25-yard strike proved unstoppable.
“As a team, we want to do our best and we try not to let the pressure get to us,” said Tapping who showed some lovely skill on the edge of the area and could have got Hearts back into the match but couldn’t get a shot away before being crowded out. “We still believe we can push on and believe 100 per cent that we can catch the teams above us. The quality is there but at the moment, our luck is just not going for us. We have got boys capable of scoring goals but at the moment, things are just not dropping for us in the box. We are just trying our best and all we can do is keep going.”
However, with just one league win since August, Hearts remain on minus points and next weekend they face a trip to Celtic, who blew them away in the Scottish Cup just a fortnight ago. They will then try to overcome one of the clubs nearest to them at the foot of the table, Kilmarnock, on Boxing Day.
“Last time [against Celtic] wasn’t great,” stated Tapping. “It was a bad team performance and a bad result but we will go to Parkhead and try and redeem ourselves and pay back the fans.
“We have been losing goals but we did defend well [against Inverness] and Billy McKay got two opportunities and he scored both of them. You could say we are losing goals but his quality has got them the three points and it was dropping for them and they were getting the goals. Hopefully, our luck will change.”