Ross County’s first ever win at Tynecastle compounded the misery for Hearts and their head coach Ian Cathro.
Never before in their 88-year history had the Highlanders won in Gorgie, but Alex Schalk capitalised on a mistake by Alex Tziolis to score the decisive goal and hand Hearts a third successive defeat.
Despite the laying of a new pitch costing around £200,000, the hosts couldn’t break their recent malaise and are now without a win in five matches. County were grateful for the three points to move away from the Ladbrokes Premiership’s relegation zone. Their gameplan was clearly to frustrate their hosts and it was executed perfectly.
In Schalk, they had probably the game’s most effective player. His tireless running in behind the Hearts defence caused problems all evening. It was no surprise to see him strike the game’s only goal early in the second half after Tziolis took a poor touch inside his own box. The result leaves Hearts eight points behind third-placed Rangers and facing a huge challenge to achieve a European place this season.
The new pitch looked resplendent prior to kick-off. It had little time to bed in given it was laid only last week and there were some visible seams and a few inevitable bumps around. Nonetheless, it was a marked improvement on its rutted predecessor and permitted both sides to get the ball down and pass it crisply along the floor. At this time of year, that is something of a rarity in Scotland.
Bjorn Johnsen returned to the starting line-up at a timely juncture for Hearts with fellow striker Esmael Goncalves suspended following his red card at Firhill on Saturday. Don Cowie also proved his fitness but Jamie Walker and Aaron Hughes didn’t make it. Ross County, missing Paul Quinn due to a hamstring complaint, arrived in Edinburgh on a disastrous run of form. Their past six matches yielded five defeats and a draw and left them just two points off the foot of the Premiership at kick-off.
After a minute’s silence in honour of the late Alex Young, the game began at a typically quick pace with both teams striving to gain control. Ross County tried a couple of efforts from distance, most notably from Marcus Fraser, before Hearts’ Andraz Struna sent a 20-yard shot into the arms of the visiting goalkeeper Scott Fox.
Ian Cathro would have been happy with his side’s ball retention as the first half progressed. The relaid surface certainly helped their cause but they were unable to break County’s rigid defensive system. The Highlanders’ three-man back line became a five whenever they were under pressure, as wide midfielders Jason Naismith and Kenny Van der Weg funnelled back. It was a roadblock intended to shut out the opposition and it was working well.
County proved their attacking attributes, too. On 24 minutes, Martin Woods’ hoisted free-kick from the left was won by Liam Boyce at the back post. His downward header was struck at goal by defender Jay McEveley and bounced tantalisingly wide of the post. Those in maroon could only stand and watch.
Hearts wasted a fine opportunity to score first ten minutes later. The industrious Arnaud Djoum created space on the edge of the County penalty area for a shot which deflected off an opponent and crashed off the crossbar. Johnsen reacted quickest to the rebound but his wayward follow-up attempt from ten yards landed in the stand. The groans from the home support told their own story.
Jack Hamilton, the Hearts goalkeeper, then saved two efforts in quick succession from Schalk as the interval approached. The conundrum of how to break County’s resistance would have been a major talking point amongst Cathro and his coaching staff during the break. On-loan Stoke City winger Moha Choulay looked like he might possess the creativity to do it but was often seen cutting inside on to his favoured left foot from his position wide on the right.
Jim McIntyre and his staff may well have had a similar conversation about how to get ahead. Just five minutes after the restart, they were dancing on the touchline after their team found a way through. Naismith charged down the right to deliver a low cross which Hearts midfielder Tziolis chose to try and control rather than clear first-time. His dithering proved costly and Schalk slotted the loose ball firmly past Hamilton from 12 yards.
The Highlanders might have doubled their lead minutes later. Hamilton came for a cross ball and collided with Nowak, resulting in a loose ball bouncing around the keeper’s penalty box. Tim Chow stabbed it goalwards but saw his effort blocked. There was no question County now sensed the opportunity to kill this game with a second goal as Hearts looked vulnerable and bereft of confidence.
Disgruntled home supporters behind Cathro’s dugout began to make their feelings known as the minutes ticked on. Schalk headed Boyce’s cross into Hamilton’s arms on 65 minutes and was then denied his second goal by on offside flag. More Hearts fans were becoming restless and the jeers grew louder. Passes regularly went astray and Choulay was then replaced by 19-year-old striker Rory Currie. That prompted a change of formation from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, while County switched to an ultra-defensive 5-4-1 system hoping to see the game out and break their Tynecastle hoodoo.
They lost centre-back Jay McEveley to injury and then saw Tasos Avlonitis rattle their crossbar as the match entered its final ten minutes. Hearts substitute Malaury Martin sent a free-kick into Fox’s arms during a period of concerted home pressure. Shots were blocked and stifled, Fox saved again from Currie, but the final whistle was greeted by a loud roar from the small pocket of travelling fans.
Hearts: Hamilton, Struna, Avlonitis, Nowak, Sowah, Tziolis, Cowie (Martin 78), Djoum, Nicholson, Choulay (Currie 67), Johnsen (Bikey 76). Unused subs: Noring, Rherras, Kitchen, Buaben.
Ross County: Fox, Naismith, Davies, McEveley (Tumilty 78), Van der Weg, Chow, Woods (O’Brien 68), Fraser, Curran, Boyce, Schalk (Gardyne 81). Unused subs: Dow, Lalkovic, McCarey, Dykes.
Referee; A Muir