HEARTS plundered a late equaliser against ten-man Ross County to earn reward for their relentless second-half pressure. The result reduced the deficit at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership to 12 points, with Kilmarnock losing at home to Motherwell.
Graham Carey was gifted the openinging goal on 23 minutes but Callum Paterson equalised moments later. Hearts fell behind again when Melvin de Leeuw scored County’s second, but Danny Wilson forced a late leveller following a corner after Richard Brittain had been dismissed for two cautions.
Hearts played much of the second half in the opposition half after falling 2-1 behind and had a series of shots off target. Their leveller was certainly an unorthodox one, but it was also deserved. County had looked dangerous throughout the opening period but seemed to sit back after going 2-1 in front.
Two early efforts at the Hearts goal from Gary Glen and De Leeuw were off target, as were two efforts from Jamie Walker at the opposite end. It had been a fairly even opening period which then swung in Ross County’s favour when the opening goal was presented to them in the 23rd minute.
Callum Tapping played a wayward backpass straight to Carey’s feet at the edge of the Hearts penalty area, and the Irishman showed the required composure to stride forward and slot the ball low past Jamie MacDonald. It was a cheap and needless concession from the hosts.
However, their response was almost immediate through the in-form Paterson. Scott Robinson’s corner was tame but Ross County failed to clear. Paterson swivelled to drive a left-footed finish into the corner of Mark Brown’s net from around ten yards.
That certainly enlivened the home support, although when Rocco Quinn’s 25-yard drive hit the underside of the crossbar it was a signal that County would not simply retreat. Another careless backpass, this time from Jamie Hamill, put Kevin Luckassen in on goal, but this time the onrushing MacDonald thwarted the visitors.
The Hearts goalkeeper pushed Quinn’s shot over the crossbar as the interval approached with the visitors enjoying some concerted pressure. That continued at the start of the second period until De Leeuw restored their advantage.
Luckassen ambled in behind the home defence but was forced away from goal and fed Glen near the byline. From his low cutback, De Leeuw was allowed an inexplicable amount of time to control and finish from 16 yards with his left foot.
Coming from behind a second time was always going to be a serious test of resolve for Gary Locke’s young side. Jordan McGhee headed Kevin McHattie’s free-kick over the crossbar and Branislav Micic glanced Richard Brittain’s corner wide.
County were then reduced to ten men when Brittain received a second yellow card for a late challenge on Walker on the edge of his own box. Hamill arced the resultant free-kick low towards the bottom corner, but Brown pushed it to safety. Hearts were enjoying their best spell of the afternoon and on 73 minutes Stevenson forced Brown down to collect another attempt.
The remainder of the second half saw maroon shirts camped in the Ross County half for sustained periods. Eventually, County relented with three minutes of normal time remaining. Substitute David Smith delivered a corner which Wilson appeared to win at the back post. Stevenson challenged and looked to get the final touch amid a collection of bodies near the goal line, however referee Crawford Allan awarded the goal to Wilson.
In the dying seconds, Paterson headed another set-piece against the crossbar as Hearts tried desperately for a winning goal. It was not to be, but their resolve throughout the second half could not be ignored.
Hearts (4-4-2): MacDonald; McGhee, McGowan, Wilson, McHattie; Robinson (B King 80), Tapping (Smith 57), Hamill, Walker; Paterson, Stevenson. Subs: Ridgers, McKay, Carrick, A King, Oliver.
Ross County (4-3-1-2): Brown; Kettlewell, Boyd, McLean, Micic; Quinn, Brittain, Carey; De Leeuw (Maatsen 78); Glen (Klok 70), Luckassen. Subs: Fraser, Kovacevic, Mustafi, Maatsen, Cooper, Ross, Klok.
Referee: Crawford Allan.