THEY looked down and out and then right at the very death they saved themselves.
The story of Hearts' weekend will now have to be the narrative they repeat for far higher stakes. Snatching an equalising goal in the final minute delivered a satisfying draw in Inverness. If only another act of 11th-hour salvation – finding the £450,000 they owe Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs by Thursday to avoid possible liquidation – was quite so straightforward.
If the worst-case scenario was to unfold, this was Hearts' last ever away match. It didn't have the feel of that, there was nothing momentous or emotional about it. For much of the day just about everything seemed extraordinary about Hearts except their team. Caley Thistle are 10 games unbeaten and should have won this one. Hearts' second-half revival was admirable, but didn't look like it was going anywhere. It was a surprise when they suddenly conjured up an equaliser via a penalty in the final minute. Ryan Stevenson wanted to take it, but his captain, Marius Zaliukas, pulled rank. It was his 29th birthday so who could argue? The penalty was buried hard and low to the right of goalkeeper Antonio Reguero.
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The goal rewarded the few hundred supporters who had the stomach to follow them north. The players gave everything, yet Hearts feel fragile and dispirited. "It is easy for the players to get down in the environment we are in, it is hard to get inside every player's head and know exactly what they are thinking," said manager John McGlynn. "They all have responsibilities to their families and they have financial commitments, but we try to remain professional on the football side and you have to say the players dug in for the club today.
"We just have to keep it as normal as possible this week. The fans have rallied around and put their hands in their pockets, we are very, very grateful for that. It looks like the St Mirren game at Tynecastle next Saturday will be a sell-out. But we are not out of the woods yet, there is still work to be done."
Caledonian Stadium was bitter, as cold as a taxman's heart, but the home team warmed their own fans with another encouraging performance. Their recent form was obvious in their play. They looked assured and confident, worrying Hearts when they attacked and rarely seeming under much stress when they had to defend.
Andrew Shinnie may not have quite done enough to be called up to a Scotland squad, but his strength and movement was again impressive and his partnership with Billy McKay was bright and menacing. Shinnie worked his way into space for an early chance, but scuffed his attempted volley. McKay's neat footwork took him away from Andy Webster before shooting wide, and when Hearts couldn't dispossess him in another run he teed up Richie Foran for a shot which was well saved by Jamie MacDonald.
The goal that put the home side ahead was a ferocious strike from Owain Tudor Jones. Andrew Shinnie had been trying to find space along the edge of the Hearts box, but instead he laid the ball off for the towering midfielder to smash a terrific right foot shot past MacDonald from 25 yards. The ball's pace and movement left the poor goalkeeper without a hope.
McGlynn reacted at half-time, replacing Mehdi Taouil and Arvydas Novikovas with Dylan McGowan and Andy Driver. The system remained the same – 4-2-3-1 with Dylan McGowan and Darren Barr in front of the back four and Driver going wide left – but the changes gave Hearts impetus. They enjoyed far more of the ball and plenty of pressure in the Caley Thistle half, with next to nothing to show for it. Actually, they might have fallen further behind when they were opened up on a counter-attack. Aaron Doran slipped a pass which put Andrew Shinnie through on MacDonald. His shot was well saved and when the ball broke to Tudor Jones he was denied a second goal by Zaliukas's block.
A win would have lifted Caley Thistle to joint top, but they tossed it away when Tudor Jones needlessly brought down Callum Paterson after another spell of laboured Hearts pressure in the last minute. Zaliukas had his penalty and his birthday goal, and soon Caley Thistle manager Terry Butcher had a sore hand. "We've thrown away two points," he said. "It's frustrating. I'm moaning, I've had a bit of a go, wrecked a bit of furniture, nearly broke my hand again...but we're on a 10-match unbeaten run. If we do get beaten we'd better have an ambulance on stand-by."