A WILY and experienced team beat a young fledgling side in Inverness on Saturday. It was that straightforward, although the margin of victory could easily have been greater. Hearts should not be too despondent given this was a top-versus-bottom clash against an Inverness Caledonian Thistle side which may even be stronger since last season’s fourth-place finish.
Realistically, both teams are playing in different leagues this season. The Highlanders will be top-six challengers, whereas Hearts will fight relegation all the way after their 15-point deduction for entering administration. The critical fixtures for Gary Locke and his players will be against those down beside them near the bottom of the Scottish Premiership. That will not include Inverness at any stage between now and next May.
Despite this defeat, Hearts have taken seven points from their first five league games – a satisfactory total for a team dominated by young academy graduates and banned from signing reinforcements. They were without captain Danny Wilson and first-choice left-back Kevin McHattie on Saturday through suspension and their substitutes bench included six teenagers.
Goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald explained why they should be content with their efforts so far. “It’s been a very difficult start for us and we’ve done well. I think if you offered us seven points from the first five games before the start, we’d probably have been happy with that,” he said.
“We have a lot of talented youngsters. The surprise is maybe how quickly they’ve adapted to first-team football. A lot of that is to do with the fans getting behind them. Everybody’s in it together and it shows on the pitch. Outwith me, [Jamie] Hamill, Stevo [Ryan Stevenson] and Danny Wilson, I don’t think many would have played more than 20 games. The average age of the team on Saturday was 21 and that’s with me and Hamill boosting it.
“You have to learn fast because it’s sink or swim now. We’ve got a lot of inexperienced players, but they’ve worked hard and they will get better as the season goes on. We’re only five games in, there are 33 to go. We had a lot of young boys with their heads down [after Saturday’s loss], but the key is to remain positive. It’s a long season.”
If Hearts are entitled to feel aggrieved about anything, it would be Hamill’s dismissal nine minutes from full-time. A volley from the predatory Billy McKay, scorer of both Inverness goals, appeared to strike the defender on the head. Referee John Beaton awarded a penalty and red carded Hamill for handling inside the penalty area.
“When the ref first blew the whistle, I thought he’d given a foul for us. It didn’t look like handball to me,” added MacDonald, who saved McKay’s spot-kick to deny the Northern Irishman a hat-trick. “I thought it clearly hit him in the head. Hamill is adamant he headed it.”
“You tell me. I don’t know,” was Locke’s response when asked if it was handball. “I don’t really want to talk about it because we’re having a bit of a torrid time just now with things like that. I spoke to Jamie, he said it hit him on the head. I spoke to the ref and he said he felt it was a handball.
“Folk will think I’m just making excuses. We lost 2-0 because Inverness are a really good side and caught us twice on the counter-attack. The team stuck at it. We’re going to get games like this. We had a great couple of weeks and this is a wee setback, but it’s not the end of the world.
“I felt we passed the ball well at the start of the game and Inverness got their first goal against the run of play. In the second half, they were the better team. That’s just something we have to take on the chin. Hopefully we can get everyone available for the Celtic game.
“The boys have had a great start to the season and this is a setback but we can’t let the heads go down. Inverness have started the season really well and you saw that they’ve got really good experienced players who know the game inside out.
“We’ve got a lot of players there who are 17 and 18, plus we had lost a couple of players through suspension. If we lose our more influential players then it’s going to be difficult for us. Another couple of youngsters made their debuts so there are positives.”
In front of 1165 Hearts fans, who sang relentlessly throughout the 90 minutes in support of their young side, 17-year-old Jordan McGhee enjoyed a fine debut display at right- back. Sam Nicholson made his competitive debut as a substitute, with MacDonald also impressive in goal.
McKay swept his first goal high beyond the goalkeeper from a cross by the menacing Aaron Doran. His second was the result of poor defending as Hearts failed to clear the ball after a quick attacking move. When it broke to McKay at the back post, he had no hesitation planting it in the bottom corner.
Jamie Walker hit a post for Hearts before the interval, but the second half was a procession towards MacDonald’s goal. Gary Warren headed against the crossbar from Ross Draper’s cross and the visiting goalkeeper produced several good saves. In truth, the final score could have been double or even treble what it was.
“Jamie had a great game in goals,” opined the Inverness manager, Terry Butcher. “We’ve beaten a good side. That’s what Hearts are. They will just keep on going with that magnificent support behind them.
“I think they can stay up. I said that before a ball was kicked. They’ve got a good spirit, it’s whether they can keep everybody fit and available. They’ve already had suspensions and they got another red card on Saturday. That doesn’t help. We fielded the same team for the fifth successive match.”
The consistency Inverness have enjoyed under Butcher is nothing short of remarkable, even if the Englishman’s methods can be a little unorthodox.
“Before the game I told the boys this game is sponsored by the letter ‘C’. Like Sesame Street,” he said. “I asked them for words beginning with ‘C’ that they would show in the match. I got composure, concentration, clearances, clinical and all that sort of thing. I’m treading new ground in Scottish football by saying a game is sponsored by a letter.
“The lads had a bit of a laugh giving me some feedback and it helps break the ice. They enjoy it. I’m going to keep on doing it.”
Butcher’s light-hearted mood changed when he spoke about McKay’s penalty. “I’m disappointed with the penalty because I don’t like the sentimentality of giving it to a player who is on two goals to give him a hat-trick. James Vincent got a right rollocking for that. He is normally our penalty taker and he will be taking the next one.
“We were comfortable in many aspects during the game, although Hearts kept going. They’ve got a lot of spirit and fair play to them. They’ve got a lot of guts. We were 2-0 up at half-time against the team at the bottom of the league and a lot of people would say, ‘why don’t you go and score more goals?’ But, on form, Hearts were just below us with seven points from 12 coming here.
“They were unbeaten in three games and they’re still a formidable force. You have to give them credit for their spirit and determination. We had great chances to finish the game off and we wanted that third goal.”