THERE was a point in the second half when Hearts threatened to implode and lose this match. That they didn’t was down to commendable reserves of character, which drew justified praise from manager Paulo Sergio. Pretty it was not. Heart-warming it most definitely was.
On a chilly and blustery afternoon at Tynecastle, Sergio sat chittering in the main stand and watched Ross Tokely equalise Rudi Skacel’s opening goal as Inverness threatened to run off with all three points. Marian Kello’s brilliance prevented Andrew Shinnie putting the visitors ahead midway through the second period, Jonny Hayes dispatching the rebound over the crossbar. Hearts survived that pivotal moment and regrouped to force a winner.
Eggert Jonsson headed home following a cross from the game’s outstanding player, David Templeton, and an evenly balanced encounter swung the way of the hosts with just 15 minutes to play. After four games without a goal, let alone a win, the roar of the home support told its own story.
“No-one in the league deserved a win more than my team,” said Sergio. “It will give them confidence in themselves and their ability, and I hope this victory will encourage the players to improve themselves even more. The weather did not help us and they can always play better but I am very proud that they are fighting for their club. Some things they are doing right and some not but ultimately we are pleased to get the three points.”
Howling gales swirled around Tynecastle, putting paid to any hopes of attractive and free-flowing football. Passing was erratic from both teams and long balls became the order of the day virtually from kick-off. The weather might have contributed to the latest Marius Zaliukas aberration after 20 minutes. The Lithuanian kicked thin air whilst attempting to clear Jamie Hamill’s bouncing throw-in, however he was rescued when Kello blocked Gregory Tade as the Frenchman homed in on goal and attempted to round the keeper.
At half-time, with Hearts looking slightly inhibited going forward, Sergio replaced Ryan Stevenson with Adrian Mrowiec. Within seconds of the restart his team were a goal to the good. With an exquisite touch to control John Sutton’s headed flick, Skacel drove the ball beyond Ryan Esson with his left foot for Hearts’ first goal in over 400 minutes of football. The Czech was then cautioned for over-celebrating by revealing his T-shirt which paid tribute to a popular Hearts fan who died recently.
“Without Mrowiec our team is more exposed, with him we are stronger with him in the midfield. But the goal was nothing to do with me, it was a good goal,” Sergio explained to the Hearts website. “We lost the ball too much in the first half so Adrian was brought on to make us more safe and secure. It was a tactical decision and we played better in the second half.”
That much was true, however Hearts were forced to withstand a spurt of Inverness pressure immediately after Skacel’s strike. It culminated in Tokely’s headed equaliser from Hayes’ free-kick, however a second would have arrived through Shinnie had Kello not intervened. That seemed to jolt the hosts into action and, eventually, Jonsson forced a second goal following a short corner which left the visitors drowning in dejection.
“When we got to 1-1, I felt we’d get a draw or go on and win. The game was very open at that stage,” said Terry Butcher, the Inverness manager. “Hearts played better than us in the second half, they created more chances and we couldn’t get out at times. I’m disappointed at how we lost the second goal. We fell asleep at a corner, Hayes was left in a two-versus-one situation and then Jonsson was unmarked at the near post to score.
“The first goal was a total joke – one ball up, one flick on, one goal. If you concede goals like that you won’t win games. We got into a good position but we haven’t gone on from there. We had chances but made mistakes again at the back. That’s 17 games and no clean sheets, which tells its own story. We do everything we can. We work on the back four in training with waves of attacks and eight versus four and things like that. Yet within 34 seconds of the second half we find ourselves a goal down from a basic kick up the park, a flick and a shot. It was woeful defending but, having said that, we showed character coming back into the game.
“This is the most frustrating season ever because these players take us to the heights and then take us to the depths. We showed glimpses of what we can do against Hearts, made chances and did good things and then toss it away..
“We’re bottom of the league because we haven’t kept a clean sheet all season, and we haven’t put chances away. It feels really weird. We can play well and still lose; if there’s a medal for that we’d have gold. We have a wonderful group of players with tremendous ability. We play wonderful football but we give away easy goals and don’t take our chances.
“We do well in games but lose. We do well at the back and throw it away in a split second. I’m close to going mad. I’ve no doubts about this team, I never did have. But we’re not getting points or results. We would probably take playing poorly and winning but they can play lovely football.
“Hearts were better than us in the second half and did enough to win the game but at 1-1 I was thinking ‘go on and win’. We’ve never followed a win with another win. Two wins can take you a good way up this league.”
It wasn’t only Butcher who was suffering – Tokely finished the game with a dislocated finger. Sutton was similarly frustrated by full-time for different reasons. He trudged off with a puzzled look on his face when substituted for Mehdi Taouil ten minutes from full-time. “Why?” he asked coach Gary Locke with his arms out by his sides. The Englishman had played his part but was not happy at his removal.
Perhaps he can be content with his contribution to a vital Hearts victory which ends a recent poor sequence of results.