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Hearts 2 Ross County 0: Hearts rise from relegation wreckage to make victory look plain sailing

HEARTS are at last able to enjoy the calm after the storm - 16 days since the club's almost inevitable relegation from the SPFL Premiership despite a protracted attempt to overturn a 15-point deficit which anchored them to the floor of Scotland's top-flight table before a ball had been kicked.

Those shackles were shaken off on Saturday as the Tynecastle club's approach to this dead rubber was that of a born-again vigilante hellbent on dragging anyone who dares cross their path into the whirlwind of the Championship play-offs.

There was no air of fear among the 13,000 Hearts fans who saw their team blow away Ross County. The force of Jamie Hamill even knocked County manager Derek Adams off his feet, an altercation which may well result in the midfielder being hauled up in front of the Scottish Football Association - but there was not even a whiff of self-pity at the reality which now awaits Gary Locke's fledgling flock. Instead, the only scent filling the Edinburgh air was blood as Hearts' latest victim came trotting into view, with Partick Thistle and Hibernian preceding them in recent weeks. The hosts were pulsating for large swathes of this encounter as their exuberance washed over their opponents, who appeared too overawed to beat a team that had hee-haw to play for.

However, the wrecking ball with which Hearts dented County's survival aspirations may have an even weightier impact on their next opponents. One month on from the Edinburgh derby in which Hibernian could have relegated their city rivals, the tables will be turned this Sunday afternoon when a freefalling Easter Road side - whose goal ratio over the last six games reads scored one conceded 11 - will attempt to somehow put up some sort of a resistance as their post-Christmas slump continues to drag them into the mire.

"It will be interesting, definitely. We're going out to win, it's just like any other game, but it would be a wee bit better if we brought them down with us to be honest," said Sam Nicholson, the Hearts midfielder, his jokey tone doing little to hide the excitement of kicking Hibs on their way down. "It would be good for the club and the fans if we did that. But we're not going out to intentionally hurt them or anything, we're not thinking about relegating them, but it would obviously be good if we brought them down."

Even Terry Butcher, the Hibs manager, would not bet against it at the moment, given the form of both teams. While the Englishman's side have only won twice this year, Hearts have equalled that staggering haul in their last two games. There appears to be a desire among Locke's side to strive against being the worst team in the league, a strange concept given they are already relegated. However, take away their 15-point deduction for being in administration, and Hearts would be level with Ross County, and only three points off Hibs.

"As the gaffer has said, it's taken a lot of time for some of the players to improve, and I put myself into that category as I wasn't playing a lot at the start of the season," added Nicholson. "It shows even to this day, even after being relegated, we are still fighting, especially for the fans - they deserve this. Coming in fewer than 15 points short and catching someone would be good for us, but it's all done now I suppose. The Premiership is a hard league. It's taken time for some of us to get used to how physical it is. I'm still getting knocked off the ball. But we're obviously getting better."

Nicholson's parting shot is something which cannot be attributed to 11th-placed County. A large support followed them down the road, with the few hundred inside Tynecastle enjoying a warm reception from their hosts, mainly due to the chants of "You're going down with the Hibees" which emanated from their direction. It was to be the only crumb of comfort garnered from a match in which Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald was reduced to a spectator, even with the hosts down to 10 men after Hamill was dismissed for poleaxing Adams.

"It's a danger when the other team goes down to 10 men and it went against us," said Richard Brittain, the County captain. "We can't dwell on it, we have four massive games left. It's massively disappointing to go down without really troubling their goalkeeper. It's been the story of our season, to be honest. We've been nicey, nicey around the box but we lack a bit of cutting edge and maybe a wee bit of luck."

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