SCOTT ROBINSON’S winning goal nine minutes from time took Hearts through the zero points barrier in the Highlands, a moment their fans had waited for since August.
Robinson scored the decisive second after Yann Songo’o had levelled Callum Paterson’s opener late in the first half to propel the Edinburgh club on to two points at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership.
The result gave Hearts their first win in 12 matches and avenged their loss by the same scoreline at this venue back in September. It also brought some joy in a largely dismal season for the Edinburgh club. Their performance fully merited the win, although they had to hold firm in defence during some intense second-half pressure from Ross County.
The hosts picked up their game after a lacklustre opening period and pinned the visitors back, but Robinson’s late goal was enough to seal victory. He was one of several in the Hearts side who turned in impressive displays - David Smith, Jamie Hamill, Sam Nicholson and Dylan McGowan just a few who deserved a mention.
Ross County entered this fixture in fine form after three wins and a draw in their last four matches. Several new continental signings had made an immediate impact in Dingwall, none more so than Filip Kiss from Slovakia. He had four goals in two appearances prior to kick-off.
For Hearts, teenage winger Nicholson was given a start after claiming his first senior goal last weekend against St Johnstone. He squandered a fine opening after just 14 seconds, sending a low cross over the County crossbar from 14 yards. Moments later, Paterson shot wide from another low delivery as Hearts signalled their intent to attack their guests.
Smith drove a venomous shot against the post after 14 minutes as Hearts’ pace and movement on the break continued to trouble County. Smith, Nicholson, Paterson and Dale Carrick were all using their pace to good effect. From Smith’s through ball, Carrick sped in behind the home defence for a shot which goalkeeper Michael Fraser deflected for a corner.
Ross County had to wait until the half-hour mark to fashion their first opening. Graham Carey’s free-kick hung high above the Hearts goalmouth and was headed across the six-yard line by Brian McLean, only for Jordan Slew to glance the ball wide.
Play then reverted to the County half once more. From Danny Wilson’s through pass, Carrick held off his marker in the inside left channel before angling a right-footed shot narrowly wide. If Hearts were concerned about not capitalising on their superiority at that stage, Paterson settled the nerves on 37 minutes.
Smith’s corner was glanced on by McKay’s head and the teenager converted first time with his left foot. It was a deserved advantage on the balance of play, although one which the visitors failed to hold for long. On the 45-minute mark, Songo’o headed Ross County level.
Richard Brittain’s curling free-kick into the penalty area was powered beyond Jamie MacDonald by the towering centre-back, who jumped clear of all challengers. Hearts were entitled to complain about the free-kick award, however. McGowan slid in for the ball with Slew and, despite pulling out of the challenge and making no contact, was penalised for intent by referee Kevin Clancy. Brittain’s free-kick was perfectly flighted for Songo’o to equalise.
The Cameroonnian would have scored again shortly after the restart but for MacDonald’s acrobatics. His 40-yard attempt was destined for the top corner until the goalkeeper appeared to push the ball for a corner. That was a hint that County were eager to assert themselves more in the second half.
They continued in that vein as the game progressed, pinning the visitors back for spells without managing to carve them open. The conditions worsened as rain became torrential and darkness fell. Hearts managed to venture forward on the 74th minute and create an excellent opening for Nicholson from McGowan’s cross. However, the youngster headed over despite being unmarked around five yards out.
That seemed to park the visitors into life and, six minutes later, they restored their advantage. Again it was a cross from Smith, which Fraser punched half clear, that teed up the goal. The ball landed kindly for Robinson, who took a touch before firing the ball high into the net from eight yards. He set off to celebrate with the joyous travelling support and was promptly booked for doing so.
County tried to salvage a point by pouring forward in the remaining few minutes. Slew scampered on to a through ball but sent his first-time shot narrowly wide. Hearts broke forward through the unlikely figure of Kevin McHattie and he would have scored a third but for a superb block by the outrushing Fraser.
A huge roar greeted the final whistle as Hearts recorded their first win of 2014, and handed Ross County their first defeat of the New Year. More importantly for Gary Locke and his players, they had finally erased the 15 points deducted last June when the club entered administration.
Ross County (4-4-2): Fraser; Gordon (De Leeuw 89), Songo’o, McLean, Oikonomou; Brittain, Kiss, Tidser (Cooper 89), Carey; Slew, Arquin. Subs: Brown, Boyd, Micic, Quinn, Glen.
Hearts (4-4-2): MacDonald; McGowan, McKay, Wilson, McHattie; Smith, Hamill, Robinson, Nicholson (Tapping 83); Carrick (B King 74), Paterson. Subs: Ridgers, Oliver, McGhee, Beith.
Referee: Kevin Clancy.