TWO differing sides to Hearts’ character helped keep the Edinburgh club top of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
For a while in Dingwall they resembled a juggernaut full of pace and power, soaring into a two-goal lead before the 15-minute mark. Then came gritty defiance to see out a narrow win in the tight and unsettling confines of a stadium where they had previously won only one competitive game.
Having more than one complexion is vital for any team, and this was probably the best example yet of how Robbie Neilson is moulding Hearts into a side for all seasons. Defensively, they rode their luck at times but held firm under sustained second-half pressure as County chased an equaliser. The game was won inside four whirlwind first-half minutes as Osman Sow and Alim Ozturk struck goals which left the hosts looking dazed.
Hearts were 2-0 ahead at that point, on course for a fourth successive league win and making light of one of the Premiership’s more difficult away trips. Liam Boyce’s penalty as half-time approached galvanised Ross County and they bombarded the Hearts defence with attack after attack following the interval. The visitors’ used game management skills to hold on. Their resistance grew as they steadfastly refused to leave the Highlands without their 100 per cent league record intact. Defensive resolve and attacking panache are key components in any successful football team. Hearts appear to have both in this, their first campaign back in Scotland’s top flight. Their back line was not without its wobbles but, nonetheless, they sit top of the Premiership with four wins from four games having already earned respect from clubs up and down the league.
“It was a hard-fought win. We were outstanding in the first half hour and that won us the three points, really,” said goalkeeper Neil Alexander. “The penalty changed the game a wee bit. It looked a bit soft, I’ll need to look at it again, but the boys did fantastically well to hang on against a very good Ross County team.”
Alexander made a couple of important saves, none more so than a parry from Michael Gardyne after only four minutes to keep the scoreline blank. “It’s important to make saves at any point in a game, but you don’t want to concede early and be against the momentum,” he continued. “It gave the boys a wee bit of a lift, we went up the other end and scored a couple of great goals.
“We were full of confidence, passing the ball really well and we looked in control. Goals change games and the penalty changed the flow of the match. Ross County came back into it and put us under a lot of pressure but I thought we defended well in the second half. We’ve got a fantastic dressing-room and there’s a great winning mentality in the place. That’s carried on from last season and it’s pleasing because we’ve brought a lot of new players in.
“The boys just want to win and they were scrapping at the end for the three points. This is a fantastic place to be at the moment and all the boys feel lucky to be at the club. There are a lot of good things happening and the future looks bright. The boys realise that and you’ve got to work hard. There’s a lot of strength in depth. You can’t take your place for granted so the players are giving 110 per cent in every game, which is great.
“We’ve started really well in the league but we’re not getting carried away. There’s a long way to go. We’re really pleased with how we started and hopefully we can keep it going.”
If one player epitomises both the attacking power and aggressive defending, it is Callum Paterson. The right-back scored in the opening league game against St Johnstone and is a regular threat in the opposition penalty area. His rasping volley when Jamie Walker’s 14th-minute corner landed on the far side of the box looked netbound in any case but Ozturk tapped in from close range to make sure. Sow had broken the deadlock minutes before with a 20-yard shot in off the post after cutting in from the right wing. At 2-0, a third Hearts goal would have killed the game stone dead.
Paterson’s contribution in defence was just as vital in the second half when the hosts poured forward. Boyce converted his penalty on 38 minutes after referee Bobby Madden penalised and cautioned Igor Rossi for fouling the Ross County defender, Chris Robertson. That made for a tense second period, with the hosts seeking to level the score. The closest they would come was an overhead attempt by Boyce from Gardyne’s cross. Hearts did pass up a glaring chance to finish County off when substitute Gavin Reilly side footed over the crossbar in front of an open goal, though.
As ball after ball was sent forward by the home team, Paterson was frequently the man to meet them. His impressive spring saw him rise seemingly up amongst the seagulls overhead to clear crosses and high balls. He hoofed everything away, intercepted passes and won tackles. If there is to be a late assault on Riccarton by an English club before the transfer window closes, do not be surprised if he is the target.
Jim McIntyre, the Ross County manager, felt there might have been a red card for Rossi at the penalty award. “He’s definitely got the arms round him, hauled him to the deck,” he said. “Whether that’s a red card I don’t know how it works any more. One is, one isn’t, so that’s a bit frustrating.
“I felt we gave away poor goals today. I’m really disappointed with that, especially the second goal because we knew exactly what type of corners they do. One of our players has switched off and we’ve been punished for that.
“I felt the two quick goals knocked the stuffing out of us, put a bit of doubt in our mind, and it took another 15 minutes of Hearts getting a lot of space, and it knocked our game plan off a wee bit. The players took a while to adjust, but credit to them, we got back in the game, we got the penalty incident which is a penalty, I’ve watched it.”
It mattered little in terms of the result. After four league matches, Hearts top the Premiership with four victories. It is beyond the wildest dreams of their supporters – 1300 of whom journeyed to the Highlands to see the latest instalment from a team being shaped to cope with any scenario.