HEARTS’ blend of physicality and flair makes them a dangerous proposition for the Ross County manager Jim McIntyre.
He leads his team to Tynecastle this weekend hoping to thwart opponents who he feels possess a well-structured mixture of strength and skill.
Whilst critics queue up to label Hearts either big brutes or lightweight divers depending on their agenda, McIntyre admires the qualities available to his counterpart Robbie Neilson. He is content to deliver his own judgment.
“For me, Hearts have good pace, trickery and skill in wide areas through Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson. They’ve got physicality in the middle of the park and in defence. They’re strong in full-back areas as well,” said McIntyre.
“Callum Paterson getting into the Scotland squad shows how far he has progressed in the last couple of years. There are bids coming in for him from the Englsih Championship. That proves Hearts have good players there. I think they have a good mixture.
“We need to make sure we’re well organised on Saturday and win our battles first and foremost. That’s the case no matter who you play. You must win your battles.”
There is no prospect of County travelling south in trepidation, for all McIntyre’s praise towards the opposition. The 44-year-old has delivered steady progress during his two years in Dingwall, winning the League Cup and securing a top-six finish last season.
That place in the upper echelons of the league allowed his players to display their penchant for matching traditionally bigger clubs at normally hostile venues. County spent the final weeks of the season drawing at Celtic Park and Tynecastle before a resounding 4-0 win at Pittodrie in the last game. The theme has continued this year with a 0-0 draw at Ibrox only last weekend. It is a record their manager is rightly proud of.
“I certainly believe we have a group of players that can handle playing in big atmospheres in front of big crowds. However, you’ve still got to get your structure right and make sure everyone is doing their individual jobs. If you don’t, you’ll get turned over at this level. You don’t get away with it at Premiership level.
“Towards the end of last season, we had good results away at Pittodrie, at Tynecastle and at Parkhead. We also did well at Hampden in the big games as well. There is no fear factor there for us. We respect where we’re going on Saturday. We need to have our side of things spot-on to get a result.”
As if back-to-back trips to Rangers and Hearts weren’t difficult enough, County travel to Pittodrie in two weeks’ time. It is a period they will embrace, knowing the role of underdog has suited them so often in the very recent past.
“This is a tough period for us but that’s how the calendar falls. You just deal with it. You want to test yourself against the best teams in those environments. You’re in football to pit your wits against the bigger clubs and the best players in the league. It’s to be embraced, it’s certainly not to be feared,” explained McIntyre.
Hearts remain second in the Ladbrokes Premiership despite last weekend’s defeat by St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park. County are seventh after what McIntyre terms an “okay” start, but have never managed a win in Gorgie since joining Scotland’s professional league set-up in 1994. McIntyre is confident there is not much between the two teams at present.
“Our confidence comes from what we’ve done over the last couple of years. The players have a mindset and know they’re capable of matching good sides, big sides, going to places like Tynecastle,” he said.
“The games against Hearts last year were close in terms of the overall play. Where they were far better than us was in front of goal, where they were ruthless. They’re a strong side with flair in the wider areas and goals through the middle of the team. We know we have our work cut out.
“We have to defend well and get the balance right between being hard to beat and offering a major threat to Hearts. We have good wide players and we have goals in our team with Liam Boyce and Craig Curran. We’ve lost Alex Schalk [to a knee injury], who is a big miss for us. He’s quick, sharp and can cause problems for big defenders like the ones Hearts have.”
McIntyre admits his difficulty as the manager of Ross County is in trying to improve the team. Luring players from Scotland’s central belt or from England to the Highlands can be an exhausting task.
Last month, he made an attempt to sign the Hearts midfielder Prince Buaben but both parties failed to agree terms. The Ghanaian remains at Tynecastle, where he has started only once in the league so far.
“He’s a player we’ve known about over the years from his time in this league,” said McIntyre.
“It was an opportunity because there was maybe going to be an availability there. We went for it, couldn’t agree terms, and that was it. Dead. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, you just move on to the next target. That’s the way football is.
“If you have a knockback then it can be quite frustrating, but if you can’t agree terms there’s not much you can do about it.
“The selling points you give players is the league they’re coming to. If you’re trying to take players from England, I believe the Scottish Premiership is a higher standard than League One down there. Nine times out of ten, these players want to get to the English Championship.
“Look at the players who have moved to the Old Firm if they’ve done well with a provincial club in Scotland. A number of Scottish players have gone straight to the Championship itself. They need to try and use this as a stepping stone.
“It is difficult, there’s no doubt. We had a really frustrating transfer window there in terms of trying to attract players to the club. The one thing we won’t do is pay somebody ridiculous money when they aren’t worth it. If that’s the case, then they don’t come here. Simple as that.
“Players have to want to come. The other major attraction for us is our facilities. They’re amongst the best in Scotland, with our training pitches, infrastructure, gym, sports science – everything is here for players to be successful. Players want for nothing at Ross County and that’s important to them.
“I would say we’ve had an okay start this season. There are games where we feel we should’ve done better. As a manager, you’re always looking for more. The one poor performance out of them all was Hamilton away, and we got what we deserved there [a 1-0 defeat]. We defended really well at Ibrox last week and took a good point. We know we have to be at our best against Hearts.”