Unbeaten thus far, Hearts went into this match looking for a morale-boosting result ahead of the first leg of their Europa League clash with Liverpool at Tynecastle.
And, after 45 minutes, it looked as if John McGlynn’s players had achieved exactly that, two goals to the good and with Caley down to ten men following Richie Foran’s reckless challenge on Ryan McGowan.
It appeared Hearts were cruising to an easy victory but they were dealt a blow when captain Marius Zaliukas sustained a leg injury in a collision with Inverness goalkeeper Ryan Esson. The Lithuanian defender attempted to run it off but collapsed to the turf a few minutes later.
McGlynn was forced into a reshuffle, Darren Barr moving back to the centre of defence in a game which flipped on its head in the second half.
It had all started positively for Hearts, winger Avydas Novikovas, who had earned a starting role in place of the suspended David Templeton, finishing off a superb piece of play from Andy Driver and Barr by curling the ball beyond Esson.
The Tynecastle side thought they should have had a penalty when Simon King hauled John Sutton to the ground and it was the same men involved again five minutes before the interval, the Caley man tugging the striker’s shirt leaving referee Bobby Madden with no alternative but to point to the spot.
Sutton picked himself up to fire the Jambos into a two-goal lead before Foran was given his marching orders, adding to the notion that this was going to be Hearts’ day.
Thistle were left with no alternative but to “go for it” in the second half and they did so with gusto, throwing everything forward in an “all or nothing” approach.
They were handed a way back into the game when Callum Paterson clipped the leg of Graeme Shinnie, his brother Andrew stepping up to convert the resulting penalty.
Hearts appeared rattled although McGowan could have put the game beyond Caley but for a wild finish. Even so, the Gorgie outfit looked to have done enough to secure the three points until, with the game into it’s second minute of added-on time, Terry Butcher’s men catching them on the break as subsitute Connor Pepper enjoyed a dream debut by getting enough on the ball to put it beyond Jamie MacDonald.
“It was the right place,” claimed the 18-year-old, “Right in front of our own fans. I just wanted to get something on it so it went over the line.
“I didn’t even see it go in, I had my eyes shut.”
His manager was, understandably, ecstatic, adding: “Wow, what a feeling that was, but I was worried Hearts might still get a winner, that’s the way the game was going.
For McGlynn, though, there were worries ahead of that pending visit from Liverpool under new boss Brendan Rodgers, although his claim that Zaliukas’ thigh injury meant he didn’t have much chance of facing the Reds proved unfounded.
McGlynn said: “We have got to learn we can’t be that naive. If we can loe goals against Inverness Caledonian Thistle then we are liable to lose them against Liverpool. There were things we did very well – we have to stick together.”
And Hearts did exactly that five days later, narrowly losing thanks to Andy Webster’s own goal at Tynecastle before drawing the return leg on Merseyside 1-1.
Hearts: MacDonald, Paterson, Webster, Zaliukas (Robinson 44), Grainger, Novikovas, Barr, McGowan, Taouil (Prychynenko 88), Driver (Walker 80), Sutton.
Inverness CT: Esson, Raven (Meekings 53), Warren, King, G Shinnie, Sutherland, Draper, A Shinnie (Pepper 81), Foran, Doran (Ross 59), McKay.