Story of the day as Hearts lift the Championship trophy after beating Inverness
On a day that demanded a bit of swaggger, Hearts rose to the occasion.
The Championship trophy was awarded to club captain Steven Naismith after a fittingly ruthless display from the title winners – inspired by the excellent Gary Mackay-Steven. He scored twice in what was his finest outing in maroon so far. Indeed, all concerned will need far more of this intensity in next season’s Premiership.
Neil Doncaster was not present as Naismith collected the trophy, which was probably just as well. The Scottish Professional Football League’s chief executive was roundly condemned for his handling of last year’s vote which dropped Hearts into this division.
Instead, another individual would become the afternoon’s most controversial figure. The temporary Inverness manager Neil McCann was sent to the stand in the second half after a furious tirade at his opposite number, Robbie Neilson.
Nothing could detract from Hearts’ dominance. Fans watching at home would be entitled to wonder why this type of display wasn’t evident more often through the campaign in Scotland’s second tier.
The open nature of this game allowed them more space to perform. While they only scored three times, the home side could probably have doubled that figure.
The defeat – coupled with wins for Dundee and Dunfermine – ended Inverness’ chances of a promotion play-off spot with one game remaining. Perhaps that’s what angered McCann with so much potentially riding on the outcome.
It was a day absolutely made for football fans as the spring sunshine flooded Tynecastle. Walking to the ground, Gorgie Road and McLeod Street would normally have been bustling with maroon-clad locals. Instead they were empty, as they have been all season, which was a sad sight as their team prepared to lift silverware.
The only hope is that this venue and every other across the country can welcome supporters back come August. By then, Hearts will be in the Premiership eager to prove their top-flight credentials. Their starting line-up will probably look rather different with some extensive surgery due to take place between now and then.
Inverness gave the hosts a guard of honour in recognition of the title win before refocusing attentions on their own issues. The Highlanders kicked off one point outside the Championship play-off places and needed a result in Edinburgh.
They were without the suspended Brad McKay against his former club but midfielder Scott Allardice was available after a successful red card appeal. Hearts reinstated Mackay-Steven in place of Euan Henderson hoping for fresh impetus in attack.
The afternoon’s first chance fell to Scott Allan, the Hibs midfielder on loan at Inverness. He curled Allardice’s deliberate low delivery over Craig Gordon’s crossbar after a well-worked corner routine. However, Hearts scored on five minutes as Mackay-Steven justified his selection and settled any potential early nerves.
He collected Peter Haring’s pass and sprinted away from his marker, Cameron Harper, with a strong first touch to take him infield. He then withstood pressure from the backtracking Allan to drive a low finish from 20 yards which nestled in Mark Ridgers’ net.
Playing in the No.10 role, Mackay-Steven was instrumental in the second goal moments later. His ball to Liam Boyce saw the striker cut a clever ball back towards Aaron McEneff for a touch and shot beyond Ridgers, putting Hearts in a comfortable position with less than ten minutes played.
Neilson’s side were passing the ball around crisply and with an intent which frustrated the Inverness interim management team of McCann and Billy Dodds. Their team couldn’t cope with Hearts’ movement and Mackay-Steven in particular.
Armand Gnanduillet could have scored a third from Haring’s back-post chip, but Mackay-Steven did convert again on the half-hour.
Gnanduillet flicked on a long ball and the Scotland internationalist darted in between the Inverness defender Robbie Deas and Ridgers. He knocked the ball over the keeper and into the unguarded net to end the game as a contest. McCann reacted by banging the dugout in disgust.
The only negative for Hearts from a scintillating first half was when Peter Haring trudged off injured and indicated a problem near his right hip area. Their command of proceedings continued after the interval and McCann’s visible dismay only worsened until he was sent to the stand on 58 minutes.
He and Neilson had a heated exchange after a challenge in midfield and McCann was heard saying, ‘I’ll f***ing knock you out,’ before referee Bobby Madden arrived with a straight red card. Neilson remained in his technical area urging Hearts to go for a fourth goal.
It almost transpired on 73 minutes when Mackay-Steven’s low cross was met by the sliding Boyce, but his effort struck the post with Ridgers beaten.
With ten minutes remaining, 16-year-old Finlay Pollock was introduced for his Hearts debut. He took up an attacking midfield role in a game he will never forget. In a season when youth academy graduates have been conspicuous by their absence, this was a welcome sight for all connected with Riccarton.
McCann aimed another verbal volley at Neilson at full-time before the trophy presentation began. Some Hearts fans wanted their team to leave the silverware on the stand but they graciously accepted it. Their final Championship fixture is at Raith Rovers on Friday before they can focus completely on next season’s top flight.
Hearts (3-4-1-2): Gordon; M Smith, Halkett, Souttar; Logan, McEneff, Haring (Irving 40), Halliday; Mackay-Steven (Pollock 80); Gnanduillet (Naismith 65), Boyce.
Inverness CT (4-2-3-1): Ridgers; Carson, Devine, Deas, Harper; Welsh, Allardice (MacGregor 46); Storey (Sutherland 73), Allan, Mackay; Todorov (Lyall 57).