REFRESHING honesty is fast becoming Paulo Sergio’s trademark, and he used that mindset when delivering his assessment of this encounter. Hearts did not deserve anything from their trip to the Highlands, according to their manager, although he did rue a late penalty claim which was refused despite being of the stonewall variety.
Josh Meekings impeded David Templeton inside the box five minutes from full-time but referee George Salmond ignored the vociferous Hearts appeals. That pretty much summed up the afternoon for the visitors, who produced a display lacking guile and even spirit at times and thus could not extend the six-game unbeaten run they brought north.
Shane Sutherland scored a textbook header from a cross by the excellent Jonny Hayes early in the second half to settle this encounter, played out amidst swirling winds and driving rain. Sutherland was virtually unmarked in doing so. Sergio, though, revealed deeper concerns after the final whistle. Concerns he has detected quickly having been in Edinburgh less than six months, and concerns which stretch the length and breadth of Scotland’s central belt.
Principally, the Portuguese feels too many within Scottish football don’t have the stomach for the journey to Inverness. This irks him considerably. In Portugal, like many European countries, trips of three hours or more are routine for away matches. Scotland is different, with the Highland capital being widely viewed as an outpost. There could be more travelling next season given that the team currently top of the First Division and favourites for promotion hail from Dingwall, a further ten miles north of Inverness.
Sergio has no problem playing in locations which are perceived as far-flung, but he criticised people in Scotland who do. The inference from his comments was that some of them may even reside in his own dressing-room.
Asked if he thought Hearts did enough to take something from the match, Sergio replied candidly: “No. I think we should do more than this. I think there is a mentality that coming to Inverness is too hard – it’s the weather, it’s the pitch. I don’t want excuses like that in my head so I’m not going to talk about those things.
“It was the same conditions for both teams and I found the Inverness team more determined than ours. We played well for the last 20 minutes and in that period we should score, but Inverness played well for the rest of the game. Football is always fair. It’s not about this being unfair because we deserved a draw. I didn’t come here to draw, I came here to win. But we didn’t do enough to win the game. I’m disappointed with both the result and the performance.”
He felt aggrieved that the penalty claim was rejected during the only period in the game when Hearts looked dominant. Templeton, a 19th minute substitute after Stephen Elliott appeared to tweak a hamstring, skipped inside Meekings and was clipped by the defender before falling to the ground. “For me, it’s a penalty,” said Sergio. “I’m going to see it again on TV but, from the place I am standing, it’s a penalty. And Templeton is saying that he was touched. The referee is closer and gives a different decision.”
Hearts grew stronger towards the end of the match as they pursued an equaliser but that proved too little too late. After five wins and a draw, they succumbed to a disappointing defeat. They seemed to lose the game in midfield as their three-man engine room was frequently outnumbered by the five of Inverness. Terry Butcher’s flexible 4-2-3-1 formation proved decisive in the outcome and, for Hearts, the sight of Rudi Skacel on the right wing was perplexing. The Czech scored a phenomenal hat-trick against St Mirren last week playing in behind strikers John Sutton and Elliott, so isolating him on the right flank in a 4-3-3 system seemed a strange tactic. Andy Webster and Scott Robinson were Hearts’ best players but both Jamie Hamill and Ryan McGowan toiled to contain Hayes. In attack, creativity was missing and, although Sutton did not lack effort, he lacked support and looked low on confidence despite also scoring against St Mirren. Templeton, again, was arguably the most creative player in maroon.
Hearts had weathered an Inverness storm in the first half despite Hamill striking the bar from 35 yards in the opening minutes. The hosts attacked intelligently throughout the first 45 minutes with a strong wind behind them and with Hayes their principal threat.
In the 36th minute, Marian Kello failed to hold Hayes’ swerving drive and Kenny Gillet converted the loose ball. However, his celebrations were stifled with Sutherland flagged offside. Sutherland atoned for that misdemeanour on 48 minutes after Hayes scarpered past Webster to deliver a left-footed cross which the midfielder headed downwards for a finish that slithered beneath Kello on the sodden surface.
Sutherland struck a post with a swerving cross from the left flank, emphasising the farce which the game became at times. Inverness, it must be said, coped far better with the biting cold conditions. Perhaps they felt obliged to deliver given the multitude of people who helped ensure this match went ahead.
“For me, there was only one team that showed the right attitude in terms of wanting to win the game,” said Butcher. “People will say that we played the conditions well, but up here we’re pretty much used to this type of weather. I’m just delighted with the win because a lot of people worked very hard to make sure this game was on.
“Thanks to the volunteers, the ground staff, photographers and everyone who was jumping in. The chairman and (director of football) Graham Bennett helped get the covers off just to get the game going ahead. It was all hands to the pump, but everyone was rewarded for their efforts with three points, a clean sheet and three wins in a week.
“It’s been a fantastic January for us. We’re not where we should be. We’re not where we feel we have to be but we’re going to get there.
“We will climb this table. We’re already starting to climb now and there’s a long way to go but we’ll get there.”
Butcher was particularly satisfied with the result after making seven changes to the Inverness team that eliminated Dunfermline from the Scottish Cup last midweek. Some of those alterations were enforced because of injuries to key players such as joint-top scorer Andrew Shinnie, defender Roman Golobart and midfielder Lee Cox.
“The boys were absolutely terrific,” Butcher continued. “We wanted the game on. I could have said, ‘let’s try and get this called off’ because we’ve so many injuries.
“The more the game went on, the more the understanding came. Their attitude was spot on.
“They rallied for each other, helped each other and the crowd were brilliant to us as well.”