EVIDENTLY it is too late in the day to be talking about turning points in Hearts’ season, but the Jambos’ 4-2 SPL win over Ross County on Saturday can be chalked up as a watershed moment in the fledgling managerial career of Gary Locke.
Hearts looked down and out with 15 minutes to go in this lunchtime kick-off at Tynecastle. They trailed a Steffen Wohlfarth-inspired Ross County 2-1 and really appeared to have little hope of a comeback. Then all hell broke loose.
Within five barmy minutes, Hearts had gone from losing 2-1 to winning 4-2, giving Locke his first victory as permanent manager of the club.
Derek Adams, the Staggies’ flabbergasted boss, called the outcome “ridiculous” and, honestly, you couldn’t argue with him. Such was the seismic shift in this match, you’d have to say Hearts’ fightback was more of a shock than the 66/1 shot Auroras Encore winning the Grand National.
Hearts boss Locke made a brave alteration at half-time which shifted the course of this match. He hooked the dreadfully ineffective midfield pairing of Callum Tapping and Mehdi Taouil and brought on Jason Holt and Arvydas Novikovas. The change gave Hearts more urgency and verve. They cancelled out the 1-0 half-time deficit within four minutes of the substitutions through Michael Ngoo, and it was Holt who helped the hosts restore parity again on 79 minutes with a cracking half-volley before the Jambos went on to win. Locke was quick to praise Holt’s contribution, but he also had glowing words for his last line of defence, Jamie MacDonald.
“I have to make special mention to my goalkeeper,” said Locke. “I think he made three or four terrific saves. We could have been dead and buried without them.”
That final sentence was no exaggeration. County opened the scoring on 22 minutes through Wohlfarth and should have made it four by the time referee Alan Muir blew for half-time.
MacDonald made three key saves just after the German’s goal, two from former Hibs winger Ivan Sproule – who was roundly barracked and 5-1’d by the Hearts faithful – and also Rocco Quinn.
Such was the form MacDonald was in, it was going to take something pretty special to beat him. Wohlfarth had delivered that, though, lashing in a top-corner special from a tight angle after Brad McKay and Jamie Hamill gave a lesson in how not to defend a cross-field ball.
McKay was only in the team because Andy Webster was sidelined by a thigh injury, while Locke brought in Hamill for Dylan McGowan and also gave a start to teenage striker Dale Carrick. Ryan Stevenson took the Hearts captaincy for the first time in his Tynecastle career. Webster, despite his average form recently, was sorely missed as an inexperienced side failed to settle. Hamill appeared short of match fitness, which is a given considering this was his first start in a year after his ruptured cruciate ligament injury, while Carrick showed pace and nifty footwork, yet little threat when it mattered most.
Hearts’ biggest problem in the opening 45 minutes, though, was ball retention. Taouil and Tapping seemed to regard possession as a deathly sin and kept giving it back to Ross County. Tapping is young and still learning, but Taouil, such is his ability, range of passing and experience, ought to have done better. Hearts fans pleaded with Locke to replace them and he duly did.
Locke earned his corn at half-time by not only making substitutions, but also cajoling his players to give a much better performance in the second period.
This tale-of-two-halves had the hallmarks of Hearts’ 2-1 home defeat to Motherwell last month, when the Jambos only really got going when 2-0 down at half-time. When asked why his side have made a habit of starting games slowly, Locke lamented: “I honestly wish I knew; we prepare as well as we can. It’s a thing, as a coach and a manager, you think: ‘What can we do to change it’, but that’s why I made a couple of changes at half-time. To be fair, the boys who have come on – even Sutty [John Sutton] when he appears late in the game – they changed it in our favour.”
The lethargic start, ultimately, didn’t matter. Ngoo, who was bullied – legally and illegally at times – by County centre-backs Scott Boyd and Grant Munro, finally got some reward when steering Kevin McHattie’s cross beyond keeper Michael Fraser on 49 minutes.
The Staggies went ahead again soon after, Wohlfarth rising unmarked to score from a corner, but Hearts grafted away and got their 79th-minute equaliser through Holt’s cracking strike.
At 2-2, Locke would have almost certainly snaffled up a point, but his Hearts side were now bristling with confidence and a minute later grabbed the lead.
Ngoo fed Jamie Walker on the left-hand side, the winger cut inside and hit a sclaffed shot that was probably going wide despite beating Fraser until County’s defender Evangelos Oikonomou intervened and lashed the ball into the top corner in a failed attempt to clear it.
County, at this point, had descended into a defensive rabble and, when the ball broke to Ngoo on the edge of the box, he had enough time to steady himself and shoot past Fraser.
The visitors rallied to a certain extent and again MacDonald saved from Sproule before Mihael Kovacevic blazed the ball over the vacant goal from the rebound. Hearts had the game in the bag, though, and saw it out from there.
Stevenson, who spoke of his “proud day” as Hearts captain afterwards, was as surprised as anyone by the comeback. “I didn’t see that coming,” he said. “We haven’t come from behind this season [to win a match], so it’s a big result. It has been a disappointing season. Sitting 11th in the league is grim looking at it and we want to finish the season as strong as we can and hopefully end up seventh.”
Locke shares Stevenson’s desire and called upon his team, who currently sit tenth in the table and five points off Kilmarnock in seventh, to lift spirits at Tynecastle between now and the end of the season. “I want the players to put in performances that the fans will enjoy,” he said, “and try and get as many points as we can.”
If Hearts can convert the last 15 minutes of this match into 90, it will almost certainly make them best of the rest. The challenge has been set.