TWO moments of quality from Hearts’ new Nigerian striker Abiola Dauda completed a vital win for the Edinburgh club in Dingwall.
Despite sustained Ross County pressure, a young Hearts side performed diligently to cement themselves in third place in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
County created several decent chances in the first half but couldn’t convert. They conceded a scrappy goal seven minutes into the second period, which was claimed by Jamie Walker although seemed to ricochet off Jordan McGhee last. Dauda entered the fray just after the hour to produce two outstanding finishes and secure the victory.
The on-loan Vitesse Arnhem forward first passed the ball into the corner before a classy finish from the edge of the area. He hadn’t looked properly match sharp making his debut against Hibs in Sunday’s Scottish Cup tie, but last night he came alive in the Highlands.
Fielding two 19-year-old centre-backs in McGhee and John Souttar – the latter making his debut – was a bold decision by Hearts. Granted, it was made through necessity rather than choice. Head coach Robbie Neilson was without injured captain Alim Ozturk, plus the suspended pair of Blazej Augustyn and Igor Rossi. A depleted defence meant voids which McGhee and Souttar were only too happy to fill.
County handed David Goodwillie, their recent loan signing from Aberdeen, a debut in attack. He and striking partner Liam Boyce would have been hoping to trouble the young visiting back line. However, it was Hearts who fashioned the first shot after just 30 seconds which Sam Nicholson sent spinning wide of target. The next attempt came from Juanma, but the reinstated Spaniard’s attempt landed over the Jail End of the Global Energy Stadium.
Ian McShane’s 15th-minute free-kick arced just wide of Neil Alexander’s goal from 20 yards out as the game began opening up. Jackson Irvine then missed a fine chance, heading McShane’s corner over the crossbar from six yards. Despite the sandy and uneven surface, both teams made an excellent fist of playing crisp, passing football at a good tempo.
The next County attack ended with Michael Gardyne’s teasing cross from the left, but no-one in dark blue could connect with the ball across the face of goal. Gardyne’s direct running was a common sight in the first half. Another dangerous McShane free-kick was headed over by the home captain Andrew Davies before Goodwillie cut inside from the right on 32 minutes, his shot deflected for a corner.
Hearts were having to weather the storm to an extent and both McGhee and Souttar coped well under pressure. Captain-for-the-night Callum Paterson was dispossessed by Gardyne but the midfielder was crowded out entering the visitors’ penalty box. Boyce almost connected with Paul Quinn’s high ball in behind the Hearts defence, and the Edinburgh side were grateful to hear the half-time whistle when it arrived.
County began the second period in similar bolshy fashion and would have gone ahead on 49 minutes had it not been for the goalframe. Boyce strode forward and played a tidy one-two with Irvine on the edge of the Hearts penalty area. Boyce curled the return ball goalwards from 18 yards, only for it to bounce back off the crossbar. Minutes later, the striker’s header force Alexander into a low save to the keeper’s left.
Just as the home team were cursing their luck, Hearts scored. They forced a corner during a breakaway and Don Cowie’s delivery was headed against a posse of bodies by Irvine. It appeared to come off McGhee and into the net beyond goalkeeper Scott Fox. Regardless of the technicalities, it was a breakthrough at a crucial juncture for the visitors.
Goodwillie was withdrawn on 58 minutes after a largely ineffective display. The Scotland internationalist is clearly short of match fitness, partly the reason he left Aberdeen in search of more game time. Hearts also made a change with Dauda entering from the substitutes’ bench to replace Arnaud Djoum. Goodwillie’s replacement, Alex Schalk, was only on the field a few minutes when he was cautioned for diving on the edge of the Hearts penalty area.
At 1-0, the onus was on Ross County to try and break their guests down. The ghosts of Sunday remained a note of caution for Neilson, though, who would have been mindful that Hibs had overhauled a two-goal deficit at Tynecastle. He stood poised on the edge of his technical area, frequently roaring at his players to “get up” rather than defend deep in their own half.
Schalk spun for a first-time shot which Alexander held on 69 minutes. Nicholson also found himself booked for simulation after being tackled by Schalk inside County’s box. Then play swung back to the other end again and Gardyne’s pass to Boyce preceded a sprightly turn and cross by the striker, but to no avail.
County’s attacking at this stage was relentless as they chased an equaliser. McGhee was forced off with just over eight minutes remaining after injuring his back in an earlier challenge. In his place came another teenager, Liam Smith, who took up position at right-back with Paterson moved inside to central defence.
With their back line stabilised, Hearts set about finishing the game off on the counter-attack. Five minutes from time, Dauda produced a magical finish to end the game as a contest. He received the ball on the left and ambled forward before producing a finish that was almost nonchalant. With his right foot, the Nigerian stroked the ball low across Fox and into the far corner of the net through a gap which was barely visible. With that, he set off to take the acclaim from the few hundred travelling fans.
He was celebrating again four minutes later. A driving run by another substitute, Dario Zanatta, saw the Canadian prod the ball to Dauda on the edge of County’s penalty area. The striker instantly curled the ball with his left foot this time and watched it sail off into the net to complete his double joy.
Ross County (4-4-2): Fox, Fraser, Quinn, Davies, Foster; Irvine (Franks 78), M Woods, McShane Gardyne; Boyce, Goodwillie (Schalk 58). Unused subs: G Woods, Murdoch, Graham, Robertson, Reckord.
Hearts (4-4-1-1): Alexander; Paterson, Souttar, McGhee (L Smith 82), Oshaniwa; Nicholson, Cowie, Pallardo, Walker (Zanatta 74); Djoum (Dauda 61); Juanma. Unused subs: Hamilton, Reilly, Beith, Buchanan.
Referee: Steven McLean.