Wade through the thickening frustration at Tynecastle Park and you will find some gradual improvement. It is there, hidden by anger and perhaps some cement dust lingering in the air from the new main stand.
The barking at Craig Levein continued on Saturday, for Hearts now have no wins in their past five games and supporters are understandably distressed. Their team is ultimately falling short of expectations. Venting frustration towards the manager at the end of a 0-0 draw with Ross County overlooked what was an encouraging performance, though.
Levein’s team dominated, stayed resolute in defence and created chance after chance in attack. In short, they did everything but score. Their 23 shots at goal to County’s five was an accurate reflection of proceedings despite the scoreline. Had it not been for several vital saves by Aaron McCarey in the visitors’ goal, this would have been a comprehensive first win at the redeveloped Tynecastle.
It was certainly progress compared with the previous weekend’s 1-1 draw against Partick Thistle. Hearts lacked a killer instinct inside the penalty area but were otherwise strong and authoritative. That didn’t quell the jeers and carping at full-time. No-one was more exasperated than Levein.
“With the performance, I’m delighted. With the result, I’m frustrated,” he said. “Compared to last week, it was a big step forward. That’s how I want the team to play. I’d like more goals, obviously, but we can look back at this game and know that’s how we should play.
“There’s no point sitting and watching replays of people missing chances. That would just depress me and the players. Sometimes in football, it’s hard. I’ve been here before. These are the moments we’re having just now.
“Our goalkeeper, Jon McLaughlin, didn’t have a shot to save. We did a lot of things really well. We sustained the pressure and their keeper made numerous really good saves.”
Jamie Walker made his 150th Hearts appearance and was industrious, hungry and creative. He looked like his old self for the first time in a while. Arnaud Djoum prowled midfield with authority and Christophe Berra was again dependable in defence. With striker Kyle Lafferty nursing a virus, Cole Stockton started up front with Esmael Goncalves wide left.
Goncalves should have scored approaching the half-hour mark. McCarey parried Djoum’s shot and the Portuguese arrived for a seemingly routine tap-in, but his connection with the ball was tame and McCarey saved again. It was one of so many opportunities the hosts passed up, and ultimately it cost them two points.
As half-time neared, County’s Alex Schalk had an effort disallowed for offside which irked the Highlanders. “The flag went up late, so I was bemused,” said manager Owen Coyle, whose team were extremely resilient and well drilled throughout the 90 minutes. “There’s no doubt Schalk scored a perfectly good goal. When Schalk strikes it, the flag goes up.”
That was a let-off for Hearts but the second half continued in the same vein as the first. Walker, Stockton, Goncalves, Michael Smith and Don Cowie all had efforts at goal. McCarey produced another breathtaking stop low to his right to stop Berra’s header from a corner. The notion arrived that it wouldn’t be Hearts’ afternoon. Even one set of floodlights at the Roseburn end of the ground failed to ignite.
Hearts weren’t perfect and in that respect there is still plenty work for Levein and his coaching staff to do with this team. They plan to recruit in January to address an imbalance at left-back. Another creative midfield and a winger are also priorities.
“I thought the midfield functioned really well,” said Levein. “Harry Cochrane is obviously very young and he gets caught on the ball at times because he doesn’t have the strength. He loses it because people are stronger and quicker than him, but he was really good. Arnaud was back to his best and Jamie was back to his best as well.
“Jamie always wants the ball, that’s why he’s such a good player. Him and Arnaud work well together and Harry complemented them well. I thought Cole Stockton was really good. He gave us a focal point, which we didn’t have in recent matches. That gave midfielders confidence to run forward and get on the ball. Everything is great apart from the result – which is the thing that matters most.”
Goncalves was withdrawn and replaced by Lafferty with ten minutes remaining. Some home supporters criticised the former St Mirren player’s contribution, but Levein leapt to his defence.
“I thought he did okay, actually. He got himself in good positions to score. Maybe their frustration was that he didn’t score when he might have scored, which I understand as well. He’ll be the most disappointed person of the lot because he had good opportunities. He brings something to the team.
“He’s there to score them, that’s the instructions, but this was one of those days. I was just hoping that, the longer it went, we would nick a goal and everybody goes away happy. We just need to keep plugging away.
“The performance is what I want us to do in every match, we played some really good football and created loads of chances, but we didn’t take any of them. We had sustained periods of pressure with good chances and that’s all I can ask for. The last part is putting the ball in the net and it wasn’t our day. We’ve got guys who are good finishers who put the ball in the net in training. There’s some nervousness, I get that, but we work on our finishing, on putting the ball into the box in training. I’ve been here before, when you’re playing well and not winning is the worst combination, but I’m convinced the goals will start to come and then it will be easier.”
The boos at full-time were accompanied by some shouts aimed specifically at the Hearts manager. A five-game winless run has seen impatience grow with the Edinburgh club still seventh in the Ladbrokes Premiership. It isn’t where Levein or supporters expect to be heading into December.
As he headed across the pitch at full-time towards the temporary dressing-rooms in the Wheatfield Stand – which will be used until new ones in the main stand are ready next summer – Levein managed to block out the audible acrimony.
“I didn’t hear it. When I was walking across the pitch I heard a lot of people applauding and they recognised the efforts the players put in to win,” he said.
There was plenty worth applauding. The battle now is to build on it and find the goals to bring Hearts to a challenging position inside the top six.