Hearts find some rhythm just in time for Hibs clash
As relief took hold in Gorgie on Saturday it was clear Hearts are still finding their stride. Victory in the opening league game was hard-earned on a day fraught with nerves.
Ross County dominated the first half, striking a post through forward Dominic Samuel and the crossbar via the outstanding winger Owura Edwards. Yet the defining moments of quality came from men in maroon. It matters not how you win that first game, only that you succeed.
Alan Forrest produced a poacher’s finish from a low cross and Barrie McKay’s outrageous control from a loping forward ball allowed him to put Hearts 2-0 ahead. Both assists belonged to left wing-back Alex Cochrane, who could become a key asset as the campaign unfolds.
McKay waited 30 games for his first goal of last season and was chuffed getting on the act early this year. “The goal is definitely up there,” he said. “I’m just glad to get off the mark quite early. Last season I think it took me too long to get a goal, so it’s obviously good to get one on the first day.
“If you look at the team from last year, a lot of us have signed up again and we really believe in the project and we all want to be a part of it. The new boys coming in have added quality and you can see that out on the pitch.”
Don’t expect him to get carried away by predicting any kind of scoring spree, though. “I try not to set myself too many targets because if you don’t reach them, you fail. I obviously just want to score and assist as many times as I can and try get a few more goals than I did last season.
“We knew going into the game we would need to be at it and in the first half we probably weren’t. We were giving the ball away too much and letting them get into the game, but the second half I thought we were a completely different team.”
Jorge Grant’s introduction as substitute contributed to a more fluent passing rhythm. The transformation came just in time for Sunday’s Edinburgh derby. Some Hearts supporters grew restless at County’s early domination even though this was their team's first competitive outing. Starting in the same passive manner at Easter Road isn’t an option.
“All the boys are looking forward to it. It’s a big game and it’s one you want to win,” said McKay. “Every game for us is big. The fans expect us to win every game. For us, the derby is no bigger, whether it comes four games further down the line or not. It’s still important we go out and get the win.”
With new signings like Forrest, Lawrence Shankland and Kye Rowles still forming relationships, it is not unreasonable that Hearts are not quite at optimum performance levels. That makes established names like McKay, Craig Halkett and Peter Haring all the more vital at Easter Road.
Hearts (3-4-3): Gordon; Sibbick, Halkett, Rowles; Atkinson (Grant 27), Haring, Smith, Cochrane; Forrest (Devlin 78), Shankland (Boyce 71), McKay (Halliday 78).
Ross County (4-2-3-1): Laidlaw; Randall (Johnson 81), Baldwin, Iacovitti, Purrington; Callachan, Tillson; Sims (Dhanda 63), Samuel (White 76), Edwards (Oglaibe 63); Hiwula.
Referee: David Dickinson.