Events in the Highland capital conspired to prove Jamie MacDonald’s value to Hearts more than at any other time this season.
The goalkeeper’s inspired display helped earn his team a point and further endorsed his case for a Scotland call-up for next month’s friendly against Poland.
That may or may not transpire depending on national coach Gordon Strachan’s views on MacDonald. What is not in doubt is his consistency as one of the Scottish Premiership’s top goalkeepers.
Since becoming Hearts’ established No.1, his shot-stopping skills have improved dramatically and earned him the right to be considered a potential Scotland goalkeeper. That very attribute was illustrated perfectly against John Hughes’ attack-minded Inverness team on Saturday.
Four times Caley Thistle struck the frame of the Hearts goal during a first half so one-sided it seemed to be played within 30 yards of MacDonald.
The visitors’ other efforts were all repelled by the defiant 27-year-old. He was airborne to hold Greg Tansey’s flying header, emerged to block Billy McKay’s shot at point-blank range and then extended a finger to tip Marley Watkins’ header on to the crossbar. That was all before the interval.
Hearts rallied after the break having been trampled over by Inverness during the first period. Their response was largely sparked by winger Sam Nicholson coming to life. Nonetheless, MacDonald was still required to throw himself low to his right to push a rasping 25-yard drive from Tansey round the post. It was a day when the goalkeeper did himself, his club and his manager proud.
“He’s a top goalkeeper and he’s been like that all season,” said Locke. “I know what he’s capable of – he’s one of the best goalkeepers in the league. He was brilliant on Saturday and I can’t speak highly enough of him.
“His performances this season have been so consistent.
“Collectively, I thought we showed a big improvement as a team. We showed character again at a difficult venue against a very good side. The character was brilliant and we thoroughly deserved a point. If we’d taken our chances in the second half, we might have got three, but I’d say a draw was a fair result.”
There was no question Hearts were fortunate to reach the interval with their goal intact. As well as Watkins’ header, David Raven, McKay and Tansey all saw shots hit the woodwork during that first-half onslaught from Inverness.
“I think we’re due a wee bit of luck, although I wouldn’t say we were lucky to get a point,” continued Locke. “Inverness hit the post and the bar a couple of times in the first half. In the second half, Jamie Hamill had a couple of shots and big Paul McCallum had a header near the end, so we might have won the game. Over the piece it was a really good performance.
“We went up there earlier in the season and lost 2-0. Inverness probably outplayed us and out-bullied us that day. Now you can see there’s been a big change in the players, especially the younger ones. They’ve all come on leaps and bounds.
“The game was difficult with the conditions. Inverness had the better of the first half, but I thought we had the better of the second. Overall, a draw was a fair result.
“The players have shown that kind of determination all season, to be fair to them. Being so young, we’ve made our mistakes over the course of the season, but you can see we aren’t making as many now. I thought we defended really well as a team.
“I’ve said all season that the character of the team is unquestionable. The boys are putting everything in for the cause and I think we saw that in abundance on Saturday.”
The aforementioned McCallum started a match for the first time since joining Hearts on loan from West Ham United. He didn’t have a massive impact, although he showed an intelligence and an awareness to link the play and showcased his aerial prowess.
Indeed, in the dying moments, his downward header from Ryan Stevenson’s cross almost produced an unlikely winning goal for Hearts. That attempt on target, however, was one of too few from Hearts’ perspective.
The positives of their performance centred around dogged resilience, plus some determined defending and tackling – which was probably to be expected given they were without first-team regulars Callum Paterson, Kevin McHattie, Jamie Walker and David Smith. Jason Holt returned to the substitutes’ bench despite having only returned to full training last week after three months out with a broken metatarsal.
Inverness were the more creative of the two teams on the day. Their wide players, Aaron Doran and Watkins, gave the Hearts full-backs Dylan McGowan and Jordan McGhee a difficult afternoon. Their craft opened up the visitors on countless occasions, especially during that first half, but no-one could convert the opportunities.
“We hit the woodwork four or five times,” said John Hughes, the Inverness manager. “We could have won the game comfortably and on another day we might have.
“I felt in terms of the style we wanted to play, everything was there. We passed it and mixed it up well. The shape and energy was very good. We had a couple of efforts cleared off the line and the Hearts goalkeeper has made two or three great saves. I can’t be too disappointed because there were a lot of good performances out there.”