WHAT a difference a striker makes. Hearts’ heroic defeat of Inverness in the Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final may have been settled on penalties, but the fact the match got to that juncture was down to the respective performances of each team’s talisman in attack.
Hearts have been crying out for an all-inclusive striker for an eternity and in the imposing, man-mountain that is Michael Ngoo, they seem to have found one. Ngoo only signed for Hearts late on Thursday, only met his team-mates on Friday and only did a light spot of training before Saturday’s match. That he led the line with aplomb, brought his Hearts colleagues into the attacking third, scored the priceless equaliser and netted a penalty in the shoot-out is a testament to the talent Hearts have landed on loan from Liverpool.
Much of the talk before the match was about Billy McKay, Inverness’ forward who has become addicted to scoring this season. John McGlynn admitted pre-match that someone like McKay was what he wanted for Hearts. His side have badly lacked a focal point, a player who can grab goals at key moments, link up play and stretch defences.
It was therefore quite a surprise that McKay so spectacularly misfired for Caley. Just 14 minutes were on the clock when he tied up bearing down on goal and failed to beat Jamie MacDonald. It was a huge moment and the sort of chance that he has routinely taken this season.
Then, just before half-time, when presented with a free header eight yards out, he failed to connect with the ball properly. By that point, you started to worry about McKay, One miss is acceptable by his own standards; two is concerning. That he spurned an even better chance in extra time, when he somehow contrived to refuse an open goal, was deplorable. All he had to do was direct the ball into the net. Instead, he clumsily controlled it rather than shooting first-time and his chance evaporated.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, Hearts benefitted hugely from Ngoo. What a presence he was. He stamped his authority on game early on, winning the ball in the air, taking long passes onto his chest, linking up well with Jason Holt in centre and Andy Driver and Jamie Walker on the flanks.
He came close with his first chance on 25 minutes with a beautifully directed header that knocked off the inside of the post, but unlike McKay, he took his second opportunity. The 20-year-old showed great movement to meet Danny Wilson’s header back across goal and then displayed even greater panache in steering a left-footed volley home to get Hearts their equaliser. It was striking play that has sadly become almost alien at Tynecastle recently.
The Hearts fans sounded their appreciation, with calls of “Ngooooooo” ringing round Easter Road. His manager and team-mates were full of praise for his workrate, attitude, clinical nature and all-round play. Even Terry Butcher, the Inverness boss, admitted that “John’s signed a good one there”. The Englishman was less than glowing about McKay’s misses ...
This was a match settled by strikers. McKay had three chances to spear Hearts’ hopes, but didn’t, and it’s not unfair to say that Hearts would be out of the cup if Ngoo hadn’t been present. Such was his impact, his immediate rapport with his team-mates and indeed the Hearts fans, the Liverpool loanee is going to be key to the second half of Hearts’ seaason. With Ngoo in maroon, and with a final on the horizon, suddenly Jambos can strike a pose of contentment for the first time for quite some while.