HEARTS’ unbeaten six-match run came crashing to an end in Inverness – and deservedly so, according to Paulo Sergio. The Tynecastle club’s manager was in no doubt that his team should have had a penalty when David Templeton went down under a challenge from Josh Meekings but, while he was sure his team deserved the spot-kick, Sergio was equally certain their play had not merited a point.
“For me it’s a penalty,” he said. “For me it’s a penalty and Templeton is saying that he was touched.
“We should have done more than this. There is a mentality thing – we came to Inverness, it’s too hard, it’s the weather. It was the same conditions for both teams, and Inverness were more determined.”
Caley Thistle stretched their own undefeated run to six as a result of this win, which was their first in 11 attempts against Hearts.
The game was finally given the go-ahead only after the teams had warmed up, and following a third inspection by referee George Salmond and his officials. Areas of the pitch were close to sodden, but the main concern for the teams was the strong wind.
Jamie Hamill soon came to terms with the conditions, and came close to opening the scoring in the third minute with an ambitious long-range shot which crashed off the crossbar with Ryan Esson beaten.
Caley Thistle were just as adventurous in the opening stages, and Jonny Hayes was almost through on the Hearts goal before being pulled back by Darren Barr, who was booked for the professional foul.
The return from suspension of Ryan McGowan in place of the newly-banned Marius Zaliukas was Sergio’s only change to the team which beat St Mirren last week, but the manager was forced into another alteration when a hamstring injury ended Stephen Elliott’s afternoon before 20 minutes had been played.
David Templeton replaced the striker and took up his usual wide left position, with Rudi Skacel moving forward to play just behind John Sutton.
Terry Butcher had made seven changes to the Caley Thistle line-up which began their midweek Scottish Cup replay victory at Dunfermline, but his team showed no sign of the lack of coherence which often afflicts sides with multiple changes. Indeed, as the first half went on they began to take advantage of the strengthening wind, and thought they had taken the lead ten minutes before the break when Kenny Gillet netted the rebound after Marian Kello had failed to hold a Jonny Hayes shot.
The far-side assistant referee had other ideas, however, and raised his flag for offside – against Nick Ross, it seemed, rather than Gillet. It was not the first time that the Hearts defence had looked stretched, and minutes later Ross had Kello at full stretch with a curling shot which went just past the post. Caley Thistle remained on the offensive right up to the half-time whistle, and in time added on they had another chance to go ahead. A long throw-in from Meekings evaded the Hearts defence, but Gregory Tade’s shot on the turn was just wide.
The home team began the second half the way they had finished the first, and this time their attacking play paid dividends. Hayes eased his way past Andy Webster all too easily down the left, and his cross to the edge of the six-yard box was headed home by Sutherland, with Kello getting a hand to the effort but being unable to keep it out. Webster could have made amends at the other end moments later, but he glanced his header wide. Caley Thistle were still dangerous on the break, and had a strong claim for a penalty turned down when Hamill chested a low cross back to Kello.
Suso Santana came on for Barr and David Obua replaced Ian Black as Hearts looked for inspiration to get them back into the game, but between those two substitutions almost found themselves 2-0 down. Sutherland’s attempt from the left looked more like a misplaced cross at first, but it had Kello beaten, and the keeper was relieved to see it come back off the junction of bar and post.
With ten minutes to play Kello kept alive Hearts’ hopes of salvaging a point when he saved from Hayes. A minute later Hearts thought they should have had a penalty when Templeton seemed to be tripped but the referee waved the claim away.
A well-drilled Caley Thistle defence were largely able to restrict Hearts to long-range shots, but they were stretched to breaking point three minutes from time when Sutton was played through on the right. The striker’s shot had the beating of Esson but went just wide.
Butcher was predictably delighted by his players’ efforts.
“You dream and hope of winning three games in a week, and when it happens it’s incredible,” he said. “I can’t fault the players – I’m very proud of them.”