Spectacular squandering of two-goal lead with man advantage can’t stop Hearts’ talk of Liverpool

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SACRIFICING a two-goal lead against ten-man Inverness certainly didn’t dent confidence around Tynecastle ahead of Thursday’s Battle of Britain with Liverpool.

Despite the squandering of two points on Saturday, Hearts are in buoyant mood and believe they can still match one of England’s biggest clubs.

The first 45 minutes against the Highlanders hinted that they could. The second suggested otherwise. Two-nil ahead and cruising, Hearts received an added fillip when the Inverness midfielder Richie Foran earned a red card for a reckless challenge on Ryan McGowan seconds before the interval. Yet the hosts were unsure how to capitalise on their advantage and ultimately squandered it.

Terry Butcher admitted this was a draw which felt like a win. For Hearts, it was a point that should most definitely have been three. Yet there was no inferiority complex lurking around the squad in the aftermath. Disappointment, yes, perhaps even a touch of disbelief. But no feelings of inadequacy. The Hearts players will stride confidently into Thursday night’s Europa League play-off first leg.

“I’m not really too fussed who Liverpool send out or who they play,” said Ryan McGowan. “I hope they send out their best team so there will be no excuses when we get a result. Charlie Adam and Stevie Gerrard are world-class. If you give them time and space they can hurt you. We’ll show them a little respect but not too much. It’s 11 v 11 and we’ll get in about it.

“Even if we’d won on Saturday we’d still go out with the same attitude. The crowd will be massive on Thursday. They are always good at night games and as players we know they’ll be up for it. If we give them extra ammunition they’ll get behind us and spur us on to a good result.

“Liverpool is a massive club. Harry Kewell going there a few years ago created a big interest in Australia. He was a superstar in his day. Anyone who knows football knows Liverpool. It is a big game but you need to take the occasion out of it. As players we need to make sure we enjoy it by going out and playing positively and giving people something to talk about.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons from last year (against Tottenham). They were amazing and we couldn’t do too much against them. We’ve spoken about it. We’ll be delighted if we get something from Thursday.”

Hearts might have learned from Tottenham but they failed to remember what happened merely two weeks ago in their opening SPL encounter with St Johnstone. That day, they were ahead and in control when the visitors were reduced to ten men. Hearts then toiled to kill the game before David Templeton’s late goal. This time, with Templeton suspended and a 2-0 lead in hand, they 
surrendered their advantage.

“We never really learned our lessons from the first game of the season,” continued McGowan. “We were 2-0 up at home against ten men. We started the second half quite well then they got a penalty and they snuck one near the end. We’ve got four days to pick ourselves up. Liverpool is an ideal game to go into as everyone will be fired up. It doesn’t really matter about Saturday’s result because Liverpool have got quality.

“I thought we were really good in the first half, made a lot of chances and scored two goals. The second half went pear-shaped and we didn’t defend as well as we can. If we can take the positives of the first half into Thursday we’ll be okay. It’s still a draw. We haven’t lost, although we should’ve won. It’s not all doom and gloom. We’ve not lost this season and we’re looking forward to Thursday.”

With Arvydas Novikovas replacing Templeton, and Danny Grainger and Mehdi Taouil also restored to the starting line-up, Hearts were refreshed following last week’s Edinburgh derby. Andrew Shinnie and Andy Driver had efforts at goal at opposite ends before Novikovas opened the scoring with an exquisite finish on 15 minutes. Driver supplied Darren Barr with the ball which was quickly moved on for the Lithuanian to stroke sublimely past goalkeeper Ryab Esson.

Hearts appealed in vain for a penalty on 27 minutes as John Sutton appeared to be tugged down by the visiting defender Gary Warren. However, they were awarded one shortly before the interval when Simon King impeded Sutton in the air challenging for a free kick. Sutton coolly dispatched the ball low beyond Esson from 12 yards, but Marius Zaliukas had collided with Esson during the previous aerial challenge and limped off in some discomfort moments later.

An awkward task became evermore difficult for Inverness seconds before the interval when Foran received a straight red card for a reckless tackle on McGowan. Butcher tried to confront referee Bobby Madden at half-time but was prevented from doing so by Andrew Dallas, the fourth official.

The second period began with Inverness looking lively, surpisingly so given their meek first-half display. Jamie MacDonald was alert to deny Billy McKay but the goalkeeper could not prevent the visitors gaining a foothold in this match on 58 minutes. A penalty was given against Hearts full-back Callum Paterson for clipping Graeme Shinnie’s heels. MacDonald got a hand to the spot-kick taken by the other Shinnie, Andrew, however he could not prevent the ball reaching the roof of the net to reduce the deficit That saw confidence levels increase within the visiting camp and they began dominating proceedings. Hearts seemed uncertain over whether to go for another goal or try to contain their more sprightly opponents. Despite the numerical disadvantage, an equaliser seemed far more probable than a third Hearts goal at the midway point of the second half.

The hosts wasted a glaring opportunity to kill the game in the 72nd minute. McGowan, sent through on goal by a lobbed Scott Robinson pass, volleyed narrowly wide of Esson’s right post. Paterson sent a shot crashing wide minutes later. There was no escaping the tension around Tynecastle. Sutton’s 81st-minute booking for a perfectly legal and ball-winning tackle on King didn’t help the mood amongst home fans.

Graeme Shinnie sent a 20-yard effort inches wide of the Hearts goal with four minutes remaining. Just as it looked like Hearts would cling on, substitute Conor Pepper bundled Graeme Shinnie’s low cross ball high into the unguarded net to secure a point for Inverness. Butcher in particular was a picture of jubilance as he orchestrated the chants of the pocket of travelling fans at full-time.

“Honestly, it feels like a win for us, it really feels like a win,” he enthused. “We are two points ahead of where we were last season, still unbeaten. What a feeling. I think that was one of the best performances by an Inverness side since I have been here. The boys are gutsy and they never know when they’re beaten.

“If the equaliser had been another two yards further back then I think Conor would have put it over the bar. That would have sent me on a pub crawl through all the Fringe bars in Edinburgh,” the former England captain joked. “Conor has just joined the club, he is on absolute buttons, but his heart is as big as a bucket. He’s from Ireland and I’m sure he thought he was playing Gaelic football, trying to hit his effort over the bar.”