JUANMA DELGADO and David Goodwillie scored late goals in a closely-fought draw between Hearts and Ross County. The Spanish striker forced home a near-post effort from Prince Buaben’s cross six minutes from the end, but Goodwillie’s header four minutes later denied the hosts all three points.
Both clubs have little left to play for in the Ladbrokes Premiership, with Hearts comfortably in third place, qualified for Europe and unlikely to catch second-placed Aberdeen. County were delighted to achieve top-six status and, for periods of the match, a lack of urgency was evident.
The final ten minutes was undoubtedly the most lively. Juanma’s goal appeared likely to win the match for Hearts but some slack defending allowed substitute Goodwillie to level from a left-sided cross. County had fought bravely to take something back to the Highlands and were entitled to feel their draw was deserved.
The visitors arrived with a 4-5-1 formation and tried to sting Hearts with swift counter-attacks. They used the wide areas well to get crosses into the box. From one early delivery by Jonathan Franks, Callum Paterson was forced to head clear from the hosts’ six-yard area. There was also a low drive by midfielder Stewart Murdoch which was dragged wide of goal.
The Hearts net was guarded by Jack Hamilton for the afternoon. He was given a run out ahead of a possible summer loan move to augment his first-team experience. First-choice goalkeeper Neil Alexander looked on from behind the home dugout.
Hamilton produced a stunning block to deny Alex Schalk on 22 minutes after Hearts had conceded possession. Juwon Oshaniwa’s pass to Perry Kitchen was wayward and Martin Woods played an instant through ball to Schalk. Darting between two central defenders, the County striker took a touch and a shot which Hamilton beat away.
Hearts didn’t threaten properly until the half-hour point. An incisive break saw Sam Nicholson feed Gavin Reilly, who in turn sent the ball through to Abiola Dauda in behind the Ross County defence. The Nigerian was forced wide by the advancing goalkeeper Scott Fox, but then took time lay the ball back to midfielder Buaben. His shot was cleared.
Buaben had two attempts at goal blocked near the interval as Hearts finished the opening half strongly. The overall quality of the game left much to be desired, and perhaps that influenced Robbie Neilson’s decision to introduce Juanma and Arnaud Djoum during the break. They replaced Reilly and Don Cowie respectively.
Within moments of play resuming, Djoum was making a difference from midfield. His back post cross was volleyed goalwards by Buaben and Fox saved a certain opener with his legs. The Cameroonian then delivered a low cross from the right which just evaded Dauda inside the penalty area.
Though both teams expended plenty effort, they continued to cancel one another out as the game progressed. Ross County brought striker Liam Boyce off the substitutes’ bench hoping to ignite their attack. However, the game’s most entertaining moment came via Callum Paterson on 72 minutes.
The full-back retrieved a corner on the left flank and produced a rabona to cross with his right foot, much to the delight of the home support. Hearts had a lucky escape moments later when Woods’ free-kick bounced into Hamilton’s net, with both Boyce and Andrew Davies flagged offside.
Play sprung up the other end and Fox was at full stretch to save Buaben’s powerful volley. The Ghanaian was probably Hearts’ most dangerous player in the second period as he made run after run down the right. Eventually, he delivered the cross for what might have been the winning goal, with Juanma in place to convert at the near post.
County weren’t finished, though. On 88 minutes, Woods’ angled delivery from the left was met by substitute Goodwillie six yards out. His header nestled in the net to secure a point.
Hearts (4-4-2): Hamilton; Paterson, Ozturk, Souttar, Oshaniwa; Buaben, Cowie, Kitchen, Nicholson; Reilly, Dauda.
46: Juanma for Reilly
46: Djoum for Cowie
72: Zanatta for Nicholson
Unused subs: Alexander, Pallardo, McGhee, L Smith.
Ross County (4-5-1): Fox; Robertson, Quinn, Davies, Foster; Franks, Irvine, Murdoch, Woods, Gardyne;Schalk.
70: Boyce for Schalk
73: De Vita for Franks
83: Goodwillie for Gardyne
Unused subs: Foden, Fraser, McShane, Graham.
Referee: Nick Walsh.