In mid-February of this year, Hearts were a Championship club, albeit coasting towards the title, and Ross County looked to be heading in the opposite direction, languishing six points adrift at the foot of the Premiership after a 4-0 bashing away to Aberdeen.
At that point, the prospect of the two teams contesting a third v fourth showdown in Scotland’s top flight just eight months down the line would have seemed fanciful at best. However, County will arrive at a packed-out Tynecastle this Saturday as one of the form teams in the country this calendar year after a remarkable run of 15 victories and only five defeats in their last 25 Premiership games (50 points from a possible 75) helped them beat relegation comfortably last term and then subsequently establish themselves as a strong contender for a top-six berth in the opening quarter of this season.
Defender Marcus Fraser joined the Dingwall club in January, just weeks before their transformation from relegation fodder to relentless force. The former Celtic youngster insists there is no great secret behind the revival and believes it has been predominantly down to manager Jim McIntyre and his assistant Billy Dodds getting basic principles instilled in the squad.
“The manager and Doddsy have been first class,” Fraser told the Evening News. “I can’t speak highly enough of them. They’ve instilled a confidence and winning mentality in the team. To be honest, I don’t know exactly why there’s been such a turnaround. The boys that were here last season really stuck together when we went on that run towards the end of the season. The boys the manager brought in this season have really took his thoughts on board and everyone’s come together again. When you’re getting results like we are, it builds confidence, so we’re now all going into games in a positive mindset. I think it’s as simple as that.
“We’ve also got a really good team ethic with players who are willing to work for each other. If somebody’s not having the best of games, the other guys will help them out and pull them through the game. Everyone knows their job and if anyone’s not doing their job, there are other guys waiting to take your place. We’ve got a really good squad, so everyone’s got to be on their toes. Training is of a really high standard and we seem to be able to take it into games. We’ve had a settled back four and a reasonably settled team, which always helps.”
While third-place Hearts will be buoyed by having beaten County 2-1 away from home in August, the feelgood factor presently accompanying the Dingwall side, two points behind the Jambos, is inescapable. A 2-0 win over high-flying Aberdeen last weekend merely underlined the belief levels in the Staggies ranks.
“Everything’s going well for the club,” said Fraser. “When you’re winning, everyone’s got a bit of a spring in their step. Everyone’s on a high at training and in games. The fans are buying into it as well. The other night against Aberdeen we had our biggest crowd of the season so hopefully that helps attract more back on a regular basis. That was a massive result for us.”
Fraser admits he couldn’t have envisaged things going so well when, after a spell on loan at Cowdenbeath, he left parent club Celtic to move to bottom-of-the-table County nine months ago. Having lost 5-1 on his last visit to Tynecastle, with Cowden 13 months ago, the 21-year-old is now part of a side heading to the Capital with a genuine belief that they will leave with three points.
“Football’s a funny game, you never know what’s round the corner,” he said. “You’d never have thought at the start of the year that Hearts v Ross County would be third v fourth in the Premiership. Both teams are going to be right up for it so it should be a good game. Hearts are pushing for second so it’ll be a really good atmosphere. We’re looking forward to it. Anywhere we go at the moment, we go with a positive mindset and believe that we can take points from the game. That’s how we’ve been since the start of the season and nothing’s going to change in the way we approach Saturday’s game. We’re going to Tynecastle to put on a good performance and believing that we can win the game.”
Despite the confidence levels surging through the County ranks, Fraser is respectful of the danger posed by a Hearts side who tend to produce their best form at home. “I thought Hearts would make a strong start to the season although I didn’t expect them to win all of their first five games,” he said. “They’ve done really well. They won the Championship with flying colours last year and they’ve started this year really well so it’ll be a hard game for us. They are a good team who will be pushing at the top of the league come the end of the season – I’ve got no doubt about that.
“I played against the likes of Sam Nicholson, Jamie Walker, Billy King, Callum Paterson and the goalie Jack Hamilton in the Under-17s and 19s with Celtic. They’re all good young players. They’ve got real flair in their team and they always look like they’ll score goals. Their attacking players are always dangerous so as a defender I’ll need to be aware of that. Before the game, the manager will go through exactly what I need to do to try and stop them.
“Going to Tynecastle, you’re always going to be put under pressure at some point in the game so hopefully when that time comes we can ride the storm. If you can get through the hard bits in the game, you’ve then got to make sure you take your chances when they come along. We’ve been good at sticking together and defending as a team this season and then when chances have come our way, we’ve had strikers like Craig Curran, Liam Boyce and Brian Graham to take them.”
Fraser’s own emergence as a top-end Premiership player has been just as remarkable as his team’s upturn in fortunes. A year ago this weekend, the defender was part of a Cowdenbeath team that was thrashed 6-0 by Falkirk in the Championship. The fact he has started 28 of County’s 30 games in all competitions – and been on the losing side just seven times – since he arrived has ensured he has no regrets about severing ties with Celtic, where he had managed only two first-team appearances.
“I was on loan at Cowdenbeath last season and things weren’t happening for me at Celtic so I moved on in January,” he explained. “There comes a time when, if you can’t see a pathway into the first team, you have to move on and that’s how I felt at Celtic. The manager was keen to get me up here and I’m glad I came because I’ve been playing regularly at a good level. That’s all I wanted.
“I was always confident of what I could do. The manager put me in as soon as I signed and hopefully I’ve repaid him for the faith he’s shown in me. After a good pre-season, he trusted me enough to keep me in there. I’m playing every week in a good league alongside good players and against good players, so I just want it to continue.”