IT was as clear an indication as any that Inverness Caledonian Thistle's slump was over.

"So, what was the Swindon score?" asked Terry Butcher, as he bounded in ebulliently and glanced at the television.

A run of six games without a victory had dented the manager's exuberance but the fact that he was in the mood to tease reporters about claims that he was a contender to replace Paolo Di Canio at the npower League One club spoke of the relief that spread through the Highland party in the wake of this hard-fought win. He might not have made his obligatory references to red wine and chip shops in Auchterarder, but it was clear that order had been restored to Butcher's world after a difficult few weeks.

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The Englishman made light of suggestions that his side had been in "a slump" by mentioning their return to second place but there were concerns that Inverness's stellar season was at risk of becoming tarnished. Indeed, the tightness of the division means one combination of results this weekend could have left them seventh.

As it was, though, this triumph halted a decline that began with the Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final defeat to Hearts in late January. "Getting beat on penalties that day hit us for six," conceded winger Aaron Doran. "But we battled hard, showed character and took our chances this time. We can start dreaming of Europe now and we want to consolidate second place."

The opportunity to do so will come on Wednesday, when they welcome Dundee United to the Highlands. That their visitors are just four points in arrears in ninth shows how compacted the competition is and the difference that even a consecutive wins can make in the final five or six games before the league splits.

The advantage will lie with those sides in fine fettle, and those with the strongest pool, but casting an eye over the Inverness bench on Saturday calls in to question the depth at their disposal. Although Josh Meekings and Richie Foran are the only established squad members unavailable, Butcher had scant means to change things given that five of the six outfield players among the substitutes have shared just two starts between them. His first XI remains strong, but injuries and suspensions would hit hard.

It is a situation that John McGlynn will recognise. Beset by assorted ailments as well as the continued departure of experienced performers, his callow Hearts team played the better football but, eventually, had their dinner money seized from them by the bigger boys. Their failure to compete aerially proved expensive as Inverness scored from three set pieces, while a lack of nous hindered their attempts to cleave open the visitors.

"We probably have to grow up quicker," said midfielder Jason Holt. "A lot of senior players have left or are injured so we need to step up. Coming up from the academy, it was all a bit of a jolly but when you step up to the first team it's completely different and we need to fight our corner."

Identifying the issue is one thing; addressing it another. McGlynn cuts an increasingly exasperated figure as his side continue to toil in 10th place after one win in their last eight matches, any ambitions of a top-six place dwindling amid the financial uncertainty swirling around the club.

Alex Mackie, the face of the Foundation of Hearts group talks of these being "the most crucial days in Hearts' history" and, with some fans beginning to carp about results and performances, the manager could really do with giving them something to cheer. Success in the League Cup final against St Mirren could be the thing but more imminent engagements must be addressed first.

"It's important there's no talk about the final," insisted Holt, referring to Wednesday's dress rehearsal in Paisley. "We're in a tough situation and have to concentrate on the league for a while. We need to spur ourselves on and fight our corner."