JUST when it looked as though a difficult week for Hearts had taken another turn for the worse, up popped John Sutton in stoppage time to limit the damage.
Hearts: Novikovas 40; Sutton 90
Ross Co.: Brittain (pen) 55; Kettlewell 77
His equaliser, with almost the last kick of the ball, will not solve the Edinburgh club’s many problems off the pitch, but, for the supporters who were watching all three points slip away, it will do for now.
Trailing to second-half strikes by Richard Brittain – from a controversial penalty – and Stuart Kettlewell, Hearts snatched their point when Marius Zaliukas set up Sutton in the penalty area. The striker, on as a substitute, wheeled on to the bouncing ball and pulled it low past the goalkeeper.
While it was cruel on County, it was the least Hearts deserved. They had led through a first-half goal by Arvydas Novikovas, and created enough chances to win two games. “We have to be grateful that we didn’t give up, but it’s still two points dropped,” said John McGlynn, their manager. “It’s the same old story. We are not killing teams off.”
Derek Adams, the County manager, also claimed that it was two points dropped but, after beating Hibernian seven days earlier, it was another important result for the SPL newcomers. “We are on a different planet from Hearts and Hibs,” said Adams. “We are Ross County. We come from a wee village called
Dingwall. That’s where we are.”
After a week in which the talk has been of transfer embargoes, share issues and tax tribunals, it was a relief for Hearts to get back to the football, even if the result was not ideal. They had to wait until just before the interval to take the lead, but they could, and should, have been ahead before then. Michael Fraser, the County goalkeeper, single-handedly prevented an early breakthrough with a double save. Not only did he block a shot by Andy Driver, he was quickly up on his feet to deny Ryan McGowan, who looked destined to head in the rebound.
Ryan Stevenson drove a shot wide, Callum Paterson had a penalty claim rejected when he tumbled over the goalkeeper, and Darren Barr’s header after a corner by Stevenson, was blocked by a defender in the six-yard area.
County briefly threatened, when a deflected strike by Brittain skidded by the post, and also when Iain Vigurs’ long-range effort was beaten away by Jamie MacDonald, but there was no denying the justice in Hearts’ opener. Zaliukas was the unlikely architect, threading the ball behind the full-back so that Novikovas had a clear sight of goal. The Lithuanian’s shot deflected up off the advancing Fraser and landed with just enough spin to bounce inside the far post.
Hearts started the second half as they had finished the first, with Fraser denying Novikovas at point-blank range, but with one sweeping move, County transformed the match. When Brittain delivered an inviting ball across the face of goal, Kettlewell was bundled over as he made for the front post. It was a pointless foul, especially as the County player was never favourite to score, but referee Craig Charleston, the referee, booked Andy Webster and pointed to the spot. Brittain swept the penalty into MacDonald’s bottom right-hand corner.
Hearts were angry with the decision, and moreso perhaps with themselves, which explained their vigorous response. When Stevenson’s piercing shot was repelled by MacDonald, Driver skied the rebound over the bar. Then Novikovas picked out Paterson from the byeline, but the striker, with his body slightly ahead of the ball, had his hooked effort parried by the goalkeeper.
County, though, were not finished. Just when they might have been excused for taking the draw, they broke up the field to snatch another. When Kettlewell accepted a pass from Vigurs just outside the Hearts penalty area, he had time to settle over the ball and pick out the bottom left-hand corner with a perfect daisy-cutter of a shot.
Hearts laid siege to the County goal but there were only ten seconds of stoppage time left when the equaliser was poked in by Sutton, who revealed later that he was considering buying shares in the club. “I am going to look into it,” he said. “I think a lot of the lads in the changing room care about the club. We are portrayed as football mercenaries at times, but we all want to help the club in any way we can.”
Hearts (4-2-3-1): MacDonald; R McGowan, Webster, Zaliukas, Grainger; Barr, Taouil; Driver, Stevenson, Novikovas (Sutton 70); Paterson (G Smith 84). Subs: Enckelman, Robinson, D McGowan, McHattie, King.
Ross County (4-4-1-1): Fraser; Kovacevic, Boyd, Munro, Fitzpatrick; Brittain, Kettlewell, Fotheringham, Quinn (McMenamin 72); Vigurs (Tokely 89); Glen (Scott 82). Subs: Brown, Ross, Dingwall, Porritt.
Referee: Craig Charleston.