RETURNING to the scene of the crime doesn’t faze Brad McKay.
Hearts’ trip to Ross County tomorrow evokes painful memories of September’s 2-1 defeat there and specifically a pivotal few minutes in the Edinburgh club’s season. A 1-0 lead was overhauled in the dying seconds to leave McKay and his colleagues devastated, but the defender insists lessons have been learned.
You need only look back six days for some proof of that. Hearts were 3-1 down against St Johnstone with two minutes remaining at McDiarmid Park last week and recovered to draw 3-3 with goals from Sam Nicholson and Danny Wilson. It was a timely fightback ahead of the journey to Dingwall.
McKay retains vivid memories of the last encounter at Victoria Park. As much as he’d like to erase them from his mind, he can’t. Confidence seemed to drain from the young Hearts players in the aftermath of that result four months ago. Goals from Melvin de Leeuw and Richard Brittain in the final moments had a pulverising effect on the visitors’ campaign. They have taken just seven league points from 48 available since, although they have progressed to the semi-finals of the League Cup.
Last week’s defiance in Perth came at a useful juncture and McKay is eager to show Ross County history will not repeat itself. “It’s not daunting going back there, not at all,” the 20-year-old told the Evening News. “We proved we can play up there because we dominated the last game. We’ll look to go and do that again. You just can’t switch off. I guess it was maybe a bit of inexperience where there were a couple of minutes to go and we needed to keep it tight to see the game out. We didn’t do that.
“I think we’ve learned from it, especially myself. I was playing at the back and boys like Danny Wilson have been there and done that, but it was a hard one for me. I’ve never felt like that before. Losing two late goals like that was difficult for me to take. I’ve definitely learned from it.
“I’m sure everyone will have that game in the back of their minds going up there. If we’re 1-0 up with a couple of minutes to go, we’ll make sure that same thing doesn’t happen again. If we took the second goal in that game then we wouldn’t have lost. There are two ways to look at it: you need to go to the final whistle and you need to take your chances.
“It was devastating given how close we came to winning. We had a couple of chances when we were 1-0 up which could have put the game to bed. Callum [Paterson] put one wide and we dominated the game, especially in the second half. We had a good number of chances, but that’s what happens in football. You’ve got to go the final whistle and if you don’t you’ll get punished.
“You always ask the ref how long to go and I remember him saying ‘two minutes’. Then you see the scoreboard going up showing one added minute. It was heartbreaking going back down the road with nothing. Even a point would have been hard to take but losing the game was worse.
“We seemed to be on a decent run up until then. We were picking up points and we were difficult to beat. It seemed to be that, since those two late goals, we’ve crumbled and fallen away a wee bit. I don’t think it was anything to do with that game, but it was since that game. We haven’t been playing as well and our form has dropped.
“It was possibly a turning point because of the timing. After losing the late goals, you could maybe say since then that it was a turning point in the season. We haven’t picked up as many points and we’ve lost to teams we should maybe have taken points from.”
As January meanders towards a close, Hearts are bottom of the league and still on minus points. There is little chance of catching second-bottom Partick Thistle, who are 21 points better off. McKay feels it is results against teams in the lower half of the table which have been the most costly.
“We haven’t been great against the teams nearest us in the league and that’s disappointing,” he said. “It’s the teams higher in the league that we’ve run a bit closer. We beat Aberdeen twice and came close against Motherwell twice. The Ross Countys, St Mirrens and Particks – we haven’t taken many points from them. Tomorrow is another one of these games that is winnable but we need to approach it in the right manner.”
The need to compete until the very last kick of the ball has been reinforced by the last few minutes of the St Johnstone match. Earlier in the campaign, Hearts might have reluctantly accepted a 3-1 defeat rather than try to battle back against the odds with such little time left. Their young players are gradually learning what is required in Scotland’s top flight.
“It was some game last week. A couple of my pals were up there and they couldn’t believe it,” said McKay. “I got texts from them saying ‘Well done’ because we were up against it with the decisions we had. We fought to the end like you have to and that’s something to remember going back to Ross County.
“It’s never over until the final whistle goes and we proved that against St Johnstone with our two late goals. We could maybe have won that match if it had gone on five minutes more.”