It’s been a costly weekend for Hearts, a reminder of the vulgarities football can produce at any inopportune moment. The sight of key midfielder Arnaud Djoum lying in a crumpled heap in the middle of the Global Energy Stadium on Saturday was harrowing enough. That was just one of several blows in a bruising 24-hour period.
The previous evening had brought news of defender Jamie Brandon’s knee injuries, which will sideline him for nine months. Then came two dropped points against bottom club Ross County in Dingwall when Jason Naismith equalised 14 minutes from time. To compound the Edinburgh club’s misery, confirmation arrived at full-time that Djoum will miss seven to eight months with a snapped Achilles tendon.
Recent weeks had seen almost everything go right for Hearts, who arrived in the Highlands with only one defeat in their last 16 matches. This was a reality check, and a severe one at that.
Djoum fell innocuously after chesting the ball down in the 25th minute, but his distress immediately became clear. A stretcher was called and he was lifted up the tunnel in pain. After losing Brandon and Djoum long-term and conceding a sloppy equaliser, the Hearts manager Craig Levein looked understandably punch-drunk leaving the stadium.
He is a man intimately familiar with the torture of serious injury. His own playing career ended because of knee trouble which he twice battled back from before finally admitting defeat in 1997. He knows what Brandon and Djoum are going through as they come to terms with the fact they will not kick a ball in anger until nearer the end of the year.
Other current and former colleagues, such as John Souttar and Callum Paterson, have come back strongly from similar injuries. It is a challenge both Djoum and Brandon must take up in order to rebuild their Tynecastle careers.
“I’ve had my share of injuries and I know just how despondent you can become because of injury,” explained Levein. “You just have to be strong. John Souttar was going through an Achilles problem this time last year and he’s come back stronger. I would say he’s arguably better than he was before he got injured. I’m hoping Arnaud and Jamie can do the same.
“You just have to look at it that way. It’s a long road to travel but that’s the way it is. What you have to do is focus on small goals over small periods of time. For now, the focus is on getting the operation, then it’s walking without crutches, then running, and so on. There are little steps to look forward to rather than just thinking, ‘I’m out for eight or nine months.’”
The Djoum incident was almost the only noteworthy moment of a mundane first half lacking genuine quality. Entertainment improved slightly after the break, with Hearts striker Kyle Lafferty scoring his 15th goal of the season direct from a free-kick to open the scoring on 53 minutes.
Don Cowie was fouled by Liam Fontaine running in behind the Ross County defence after Harry Souttar, brother of Hearts defender John, appeared to misjudge a long ball. The set-piece was ruthlessly dispatched from 25 yards by Lafferty. It was his 28th Hearts appearance and his scoring ratio certainly pleases the manager.
“Kyle is doing a really good job,” stated Levein. “I think in the last few matches he’s upped his game a bit and he was good again on Saturday. We maybe didn’t get as much support to him as I would have liked. All credit to him for the goal, it was a fantastic finish, but he’s a quality player. I’m pleased for him. It was a good day for him.”
When you’re in such rich form, you can decide to take free-kicks by yourself even without the manager’s consent. “He’s decided that,” smiled Levein. “He scored one at Murrayfield against Rangers and he’s got that quality. He’s giving us a fair return in terms of goals. For any striker, if you get one in two, it’s good going. We can’t argue with what he’s producing.”
Naismith’s crisp finish from Alex Schalk’s pass deservedly brought County level entering the closing stages of the match. The hosts had struggled to open up the Hearts rearguard until that point, but they saw another effort by substitute Ryan Dow cleared off the goal line before an offside flag was raised.
County finished the match strongly, pushing for a win in their quest to move off the bottom of the Premiership. Hearts were content to hear the final whistle. “A point was the minimum we deserved,” said the Dingwall side’s manager, Owen Coyle. “I thought, although the first half was mostly uneventful, we were certainly in control of the game and had one or two half-chances.
“We felt very comfortable at half-time. Hearts started the second half better than we did and forced a couple of corners. It was a routine ball we should have cleared and Harry was maybe caught in the sun, but it led to the free-kick and Kyle had a fantastic finish. He is somebody I know well having sold him to Rangers for £4million from Burnley. I know his capabilities.
“The good thing for us is the reaction was terrific against a side that has lost once in 16 games. We really put them to the test, created some good chances, scored a wonderful goal and should have added to it.
“I certainly felt we were worth three points but that’s two good performances back-to-back and the important time to play well is at the business end of the season. We had a terrible run, but we certainly look as if we’re well over that. We look now like a team capable of going and winning the points we need to move the club to safety.”