CALLUM TAPPING believes the teams above Hearts in the Scottish Premiership are catchable, and that the Edinburgh club can match anyone on their day.
The midfielder feels they are missing a touch of luck but it is apparent they need more than just good fortune. They could do with a Billy McKay or a Marley Watkins – the players whose quality made the difference for Inverness at Tynecastle.
Two teams with vastly contrasting fortunes met at the weekend, and even the howling gales in Gorgie could not bring a wind of change. Hearts and Inverness are polar opposites in terms of form at the moment, as their recent sequences show. Hearts sit bottom of the league and 14 points adrift of second-bottom Ross County. Inverness are second and now unbeaten in seven matches with five successive clean sheets.
McKay, Watkins and others like the impressive Graeme Shinnie used all their guile and experience to prise three points from Tynecastle on a day when both teams were fairly evenly matched. The weather was atrocious, but it was simply the case that Inverness weathered the storm better. Hearts claimed their starting line-up was the sixth youngest in their history and this was another harsh lesson for their kids.
“I didn’t think there was much in it,” said 20-year-old Tapping. “The difference was Billy McKay and his two finishes. That was the bit of quality. We had a few crosses into the box but we didn’t get anything from them. We believe our squad is as good as anybody in the league. The quality is there. At the moment, the luck isn’t going for us. Little balls aren’t dropping for us in the box. We are trying our best and all we can do is keep going.
“To get to zero points will be a big relief. That was our aim, to get to zero as quickly as possible and then push on from there. I think the teams above us are catchable. There is always pressure. As a football player, there is pressure everywhere. Hearts is a big club so there’s pressure to do well, regardless of the team and its age. All we can do is our best.”
After an even first half, the hosts camped in the Inverness half following the restart and pushed for the opening goal. Then, in a flash, they were behind on 60 minutes. Scott Robinson was dispossessed, Watkins slipped a pass to McKay and he cut inside Jamie Hamill to angle his finish into the far corner of Jamie MacDonald’s net. The striker then thumped a volley off the post, again from Watkins’ delivery. Seven minutes from full-time, the outstanding Watkins again fed McKay for a lethal left-footed drive which powered past MacDonald to seal the game. It was the Northern Irishman’s 15th goal in 18 games for his club this season.
Amid the despondency and the dreich weather, there came some words of encouragement for Hearts supporters. They came from John Hughes, of all characters. “Hearts are not a bad side,” said the new Inverness manager and former Hibs favourite. “I’ve seen a lot of those young kids through the years and just the turmoil going on at the club at this moment has maybe affected them. They’ll get back to winning ways, I’m sure of that.”
Hughes rightly extolled McKay as “an exceptional talent” and heaped praise on Watkins, who galloped in behind Hearts’ left-back Kevin McHattie countless times in the second half. “When he plays like that he is a real handful. He has all the tricks, stepovers, dragbacks. If I am looking to help him along, I would just say I’d like more goals out of him. I felt he gave a real man-of-the-match performance.”
There was also a sinister side to Inverness which should not be overlooked. Watkins ought to have been cautioned for diving inside the Hearts box hoping to win a penalty in the first half. The sight of captain Richie Foran constantly berating referee Brian Colvin after almost every decision was also distasteful and needless. Foran was cautioned for fouling Sam Nicholson and should really have had another for dissent.
For Hearts, 18-year-olds Nicholson and Gary Oliver were the standouts. Nicholson showed his creative skills on his first senior start and is comfortable both wide left or wide right. Oliver partnered Callum Paterson up front in a 4-4-2 formation and drove at the Inverness defence whenever possible on his first league start. Both harbour the potential to excite fans but they needed help. With the likes of Ryan Stevenson and Jason Holt out injured, it was in short supply on Saturday. Even Jamie Walker aggravated an Achilles problem and had to be replaced at half-time.
If things weren’t difficult enough, Hearts visit champions Celtic this weekend. “It was a bad team performance and a bad result against them last time,” said Tapping of the 7-0 Scottish Cup defeat. “We’ll go to Parkhead and try to redeem ourselves and pay the fans back. We are losing goals but, on Saturday, we defended very well. Billy McKay had two opportunities and scored both of them.
“You could say we’re losing goals but it was down to his quality on the day. That’s what got them the three points. The fans have been brilliant. They expect big things because Hearts is a big club and we understand that. For them to come out in force every week is tremendous.”