DISBELIEF was ubiquitous around Victoria Park on Saturday evening. As Hearts pondered how they were leaving with nothing, Ross County equally wondered how they finished as victors. One-nil down with two minutes to go, it looked a most unlikely end scenario for the Highlanders.
Hearts’ late collapse proved a costly lesson for their young team as two headers inside four minutes turned this match, well, on its head. First, the Ross County substitute Melvin de Leeuw nodded Steven Ross’ cross into Jamie MacDonald’s bottom right corner on 88 minutes. Then the Dutchman supplied the ball from which Richard Brittain planted the winner in the same place two minutes into stoppage time.
With hands on heads, the Hearts players trudged off in shock. The ruthlessness of top-flight football and the cut-throat nature of the Scottish Premiership had been reinforced in quite brutal fashion. Two crosses, two headers, two goals. Too easy. Moments earlier they were comfortably ahead through Callum Paterson’s first-half goal and considering the prospect of moving on to minus five points in their fight against relegation.
“On the pitch I was thinking a draw would’ve been a bad result, so you can imagine how we felt at the end having lost,” explained the visiting captain, Danny Wilson. “We just need to try and dust ourselves down.
“We’ve got another game on Wednesday and then we move on to next Saturday. The games are coming thick and fast for us and hopefully we can go and rectify this on Wednesday. It’s a bit raw at the moment
“I don’t really know what happened. That spell at the end was the only spell they really had us under the cosh and maybe we just couldn’t deal with it. Until then, we had dealt with most crosses that came into our box. If you switch off for two, you get punished.
“We can’t use inexperience as an excuse. We know about each other but you aren’t going to become more experienced overnight. Hopefully the boys can learn from it and it won’t happen again this season. Up until they scored I thought we were the better team and would have been good value for a win. Had we won we’d be talking about how great the performance was but we don’t have any points and we have to learn from it.”
Gary Locke, the Hearts manager, echoed Wilson’s sentiments. However, with three consecutive defeats fresh in the memory, there is a lot of learning to be done amongst the young Riccarton academy graduates.
They could have doubled their advantage and secured victory when the impressive Jason Holt sent a cutback to Paterson from the byline in the second half, but the striker was ahead of the ball and could not connect properly.
Ross County goalkeeper Mark Brown was then at full stretch to repel Holt’s 20-yard shot. Even without converting those chances, Hearts were not unduly troubled until those few crazy minutes at the end.
“It’s a sore one, a real kick in the teeth for us,” said Locke. “At 1-0 we looked really comfortable and I couldn’t se them scoring. Two crosses weren’t defended and it cost us. When you get to the last kick of the ball, we need to defend better than that. We’re a young team and the heads are down but we can’t feel sorry for ourselves.
“I’m not going to use youthfulness as an excuse. We let crosses come into our box too easy and then didn’t defend them. We had chances to kill the game. Brown had a save from Jason Holt and if that goes in it’s game over.
“The players are learning and gaining great experience in the first team. With a few more experienced players, they might have been able to see the game out. I felt we played well in the game.”
In truth it was an untidy affair for long spells with quality passing conspicuous by its absence. Derek Adams looked just as surprised as Locke did with the final result, although he too felt his charges produced a decent performance.
“I thought we played very well and were the better side over the 90 minutes,” said Adams. “I don’t know how we were 1-0 down but I’m delighted to win 2-1 against a good, young Hearts team.
“De Leeuw did well, scored with his head and put a cross into the box for Richie Brittain’s goal. He’s a great player. It’ll just take him a wee bit of time to adjust. We brought him here because he can score goals and over the last four games we’ve played well. That’s seven points from four games now. Take nothing away from Hearts. Their suppoorters were magnificent. They’re a lesson in how to go and support your team.”
They were indeed, almost 900 of them singing themselves hoarse for 90 minutes. But the biggest lesson came on the field as Hearts’ young protégés learned the hard way that a game is never over until the final whistle.