Harsh words in the Hearts dressing room and mounting criticism in the stands two games into the 2019/20 league campaign. Tynecastle Park is a tense place to be right now. Last season’s lingering frustration was merely further fuelled by a goalless draw at home to newly-promoted Ross County.
Striker Conor Washington revealed that players had a frank exchange at full-time as supporters again demanded change. On the same weekend 12 months previously, Kyle Lafferty scored Hearts’ winner against Celtic as what would become a 13-game unbeaten run gathered momentum. There is a harsh contrast between then and now thanks to just four league victories in 2019.
Ross County would have won on Saturday had Brian Graham’s 82nd-minute penalty not rebounded off the post. That aside, they still deserved all three points. Hearts toiled for creativity, the influential Steven Naismith went off injured and goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal looked uncomfortable. Debutants Loic Damour and Aidy White were undoubted positives.
You had to wonder what new recruits like Washington thought of it all. He and strike partner Uche Ikpeazu received poor service, which resulted in barely a quality scoring chance for the hosts. County were more inventive and struck the goalframe through Michael Gardyne before substitute Graham’s penalty miss.
“I don’t think we got the shape that the manager wanted right as a group of players,” said Washington, the Northern Ireland forward. “I thought we were really poor in the second half to be honest and there were some words said in the changing room that needed to be said, especially around first and second balls.
“I think, in the second half, they’ve come to our ground and dominated us and outfought us, which is a real disappointment. It definitely felt like I was feeding off scraps in the second half but I probably should’ve done better with a couple in the first half.”
Asked who led the dressing-room talks, he replied: “Just the players. I think we need to get better as a group, help each other more as a group and we said that. We need to stick together more on the pitch and have more communication and not let the crowd’s frustrations affect our game.
“It’s a whole team thing I think and it’s just a communication thing. We just need to help each other out more. It’s such a basic thing to talk to each other on the pitch but we just didn’t do it enough in the second half.”
It isn’t only players searching for some inspiration, as the full-time jeers confirmed. Hearts fans are never going accept their team being outfought. Certainly not by a side just out of the Championship. “I think a lot of that is to do with the way we didn’t get the shape right to be honest,” explained Washington.
“We didn’t win the first ball and then going on from that we didn’t win the second ball. It just felt like wave after wave of attack in the second half to be honest and with them getting a penalty I think we did well to come out with a point.
“I think, if you’ve got something to say, it’s good to get it out in the open and hopefully we can move forward from that going into the game on Friday [at Motherwell in the Betfred Cup].”
County deserve enormous credit for a disciplined, intelligent display masterminded by joint-managers Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson. Five wins and a draw from six competitive matches so far this season indicates they have more than enough to survive in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Hearts losing Naismith at half-time due to a tight hamstring helped the Highlanders’ cause. As the second half progressed, tension grew among home fans harbouring a feeling of groundhog day. “I think they’ve got every right to be frustrated,” conceded Washington.
“They and us think we should be winning this game and we should have more than enough to do that. No disrespect to Ross County, but at our place we should be dominating games and winning games. I’ve played in front of some tough crowds in England and I don’t think they [the Hearts fans] were too bad. They were probably right with the reaction they gave us, to be honest.”