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Hearts 0 Inverness Caledonian Thistle 2: Escape to victory

THE end to a football match yesterday allowed one team to look for shelter and another to seek refuge.

Harley Watkins firmly deters a challenge from Hearts' Kevin McHattie. Photograph: SNS
Harley Watkins firmly deters a challenge from Hearts' Kevin McHattie. Photograph: SNS

Those intentions can sound similar, but they would be defined clearly by Hearts and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, the Highland side stepping out of the foul weather having extended their unbeaten run to seven matches. The rain had fallen heavily on Tynecastle and Inverness were able to head for higher ground - victory further consolidating their position of second in the SPFL Premiership table.

John Hughes would also sit comfortably in Edinburgh as he took his place in the dugout for the first time as Inverness manager - he spent his debut in the stand last weekend - easing to his first victory following two goals from Billy McKay. Hughes had made it as straightforward as possible anyway, naming the starting XI which was preferred before his arrival and allowing erstwhile interim manager Duncan Shearer to do most of the talking.

Inverness were playing admirably before his appoint-ment - they have now kept five consecutive clean sheets - and appear to have required little by way of upkeep. "They have been absolutely different class and if it's not broken then it doesn't need to be fixed," said the Inverness manager. "When I came here I was clever enough to touch upon what they do well and got my finger right on the pulse."

Hearts would provide a remarkable contrast since a quick head-count this week had suggested that Gary Locke might be able to assemble only 12 outfield players against Inverness - with Ryan Stevenson and Jason Holt ruled out - and the Hearts manager was forced to use his team sheet to paper over the cracks yesterday. He had taken training but also set up a triage, a practice which Hearts' coaching staff would continue when Callum Paterson and Jamie Walker went off for treatment within the first 20 minutes.

The latter would not return after half-time. "He got an Achilles problem and felt he couldn't continue," said Locke. "It was a blow as he was doing well. It never rains but it pours."

The loss of Stevenson to a hamstring tear is a sore point for the Tynecastle side too, since his experience had provided a point of reference for the callow lot around him. Without the midfielder, Hearts were unable to find much of what they were looking for against Inverness, substitute David Smith pushing a low cross into the Inverness penalty area which Graeme Shinnie turned away.

The fixture was in no condition to offer more impressive play - the ball shivered feverishly in the wind and rain - but the home support found referee Brian Colvin to be a greater frustration. Long inured to the idea that league matches are unlikely to offer much fulfilment, they became occupied with perceptions of injustice. They were most animated by a series of alleged handballs which went unpunished in the first half as well as the thudding tackles of Ross Draper.

The varied inadequacies of this Hearts team are not so easily shouted down, though. When the ball was fed to McKay in the penalty area after 59 minutes, the Inverness striker cut inside his marker to create just enough space to guide a shot inside the right-hand post and give his side a lead. He might have doubled it five minutes later but could only usher a shot wide, before nudging a header against a post later.

This is a list of misses rather than a summation of his ability. That can be made by describing the forward's second goal yesterday, which arrived after 83 minutes - McKay sitting on the shoulder of the Hearts defence before breaking on to a through-ball from Harley Watkins and whipping a shot high into the net. It is the 15th time McKay has managed to do that this season.

It was also the 13th goal Hearts have conceded in three matches, a statistic which had included heavy defeats by Dundee United and Celtic already. That could be described prosaically as a bad run of form, although that seems an imperfect term given that Hearts are moving along at the moment as though they have taken a sore one to the groin. It was perhaps a small mercy then that Shinnie would shoot over the crossbar as Inverness pressed further.

"We came strong second half, but I expect that given the character and spirit in that dressing room. And the will to win," added Hughes.

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