Life goes on at Hearts in the wake of Robbie Neilson’s departure. Youth coaches Jon Daly and Andy Kirk took charge in Dingwall on Saturday, although for much of the afternoon it was like Neilson hadn’t gone anywhere.
This was another frenetic fixture, characterised by sloppy defending, four goals and two penalties – the second of which would have won the game for Hearts had Ross County goalkeeper Scott Fox not saved from Jamie Walker.
Hearts continue to entertain as they did in the final weeks of Neilson’s tenure, although Daly has no desire to succeed him. The Irishman is standing in temporarily alongside his Riccarton counterpart Kirk. They will gladly step aside once Hearts appoint Neilson’s successor.
Ian Cathro is the main target and could be in place before the weekend trip to Ibrox. Saturday past may just be a one-off, but Daly and Kirk were determined to inspire. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself in football. There’s always the next game,” said Daly.
“Robbie’s done a fantastic job. He’s recruited the right players with the right mentality so, when situations like this occur, they know how to deal with it. We all wish Robbie the best but the boys are Hearts players and they need to focus on getting the right results for Hearts. There was no hangover on Saturday and that was down to the professionalism of the players.
“The boys showed a lot of character to respond to the situation that’s been going on over the last few days. We spoke to them about it and said it’s not in our control. We told them the match was the only thing we could effect and I thought they were all different class.”
An encouraging performance wasn’t enough to bring three points back from the Highlands. Hearts had to settle for a draw after Fox saved Walker’s penalty in the fifth minute of added time.
Jay McEveley’s hooked effort put the hosts ahead just before the interval. Hearts recovered after the break with two goals inside three minutes. First, Arnaud Djoum prodded home a shot by Bjorn Johnsen. Then Callum Paterson put the visitors 2-1 in front following Djoum’s cross.
It should be noted that Hearts goalkeeper Jack Hamilton produced three vital stops early in the second half. County went for the jugular when play restarted and Hamilton pulled off a stunning double save to repel two netbound efforts from Michael Gardyne at the far post. Minutes later, he also stopped Liam Boyce’s shot.
When County equalised on 86 minutes from the penalty spot, it was more than justified. Faycal Rherras handled a cross and Boyce converted from 12 yards after referee Willie Collum pointed to the spot. Walker couldn’t follow Boyce’s lead, though, after being fouled by Andrew Davies. One point apiece was probably fair.
“We wanted nine points out of nine but it wasn’t to be,” said Paterson, referring to impressive wins over Motherwell and Rangers prior to this fixture. “Thankfully, we got something out of it. We were on top for the majority of the game.
“They went 1-0 up against the run of play. We came back to go 2-1 up but they had the lion’s share of possession and chances in the last ten minutes. Maybe a draw was a fair result. Missing the penalty is a bit of a sucker-punch but getting a point is better than nothing.”
The Scotland full-back feels excited at the prospect of a new head coach taking charge this week. “I can’t wait to work with the new manager. We don’t know who it is yet but we’ll find out soon enough. We’ve shown we have depth and diversity in the squad so he’ll be able to mix it up.”
Daly and Kirk were forced to think quickly during the second half when centre-back Igor Rossi limped off with what looked like a groin problem. They had the wherewithal to introduce Alim Ozturk and Daly paid tribute to Neilson for assembling such a rich squad.
“You have to give credit to Robbie and Stevie. They’ve left a fantastic squad of players for whoever takes over. When the new man sees the squad he will inherit, he will be pleasantly surprised. My job was fairly simple. The team pratically picked itself because of the performances the boys had put in. We had to deal with a couple of injuries but you’ve got a good squad of players. You’re putting on top players so it was quite comfortable. I really enjoyed it.
“We were the better team in the first half in terms of keeping the ball. We’d worked on dealing with balls into our box, dealing with the first and second ball, so it was disappointing to concede the first goal like we did.
“If one or two of their chances go in early in the second half, we’re probably dead and buried but the boys responded. We got ourselves 2-1 up by showing great character.
“We were probably running on empty after the games we’ve had. We nicked a penalty through great play by Jamie Walker but the keeper guesses the right way and saves it.”
The result leaves Hearts third in the Ladbrokes Premiership. Not a bad position for the new incumbent to start from.