Second-half goals from attackers Alan Forrest and Barrie McKay were enough to earn Hearts a 2-1 home win over Ross County in their cinch Premiership opener on Saturday.
The Staggies were the better team in the first half and struck the woodwork twice before the break.
But the hosts, relieved still to be on level terms, stepped things up after the interval and got themselves two goals in front before Jordan White hit back to set up a tense finale.
How Hearts started with victory…
Hearts, bidding to follow up their impressive third-place finish from last season, handed competitive debuts to Kye Rowles, Lawrence Shankland and Forrest, while other new recruits Lewis Neilson and Jorge Grant were listed among the substitutes. Influential defender Stephen Kingsley missed out through injury.
County boss Malky Mackay, whose side cruised through their Premier Sports Cup group, included three summer signings in the starting XI – Ben Purrington, Jordy Hiwula and Owura Edwards.
Ahead of kick-off, Hearts paid tribute to popular former player Drew Busby, who died at the start of July, with a tifo display in the Wheatfield Stand and a minute’s silence.
The hosts had the first attempt of the match in the ninth minute when Shankland fired just wide from 25 yards out after Michael Smith drove impressively into the County half.
The visitors threatened two minutes later when Hiwula fired just wide from the edge of the box after being set up by Edwards.
County went close again in the 17th minute when Purrington had an effort from 12 yards out deflected over by Nathaniel Atkinson after good play by Dominic Samuel and Hiwula on the left.
Hearts had a major let-off six minutes later when Samuel glanced a header off the inside of a post from Edwards’ cross. And shortly afterwards Edwards curled a superd effort off the crossbar from just inside the box.
The home side were forced into a change in the 28th minute when Atkinson went off injured to be replaced by Grant.
County continued to be the more threatening side and Hiwula saw an angled effort from the left, which deflected off Craig Halkett, beaten away by Craig Gordon.
Hearts eventually managed to stem the flow of visiting attacks towards the end of the first half and Rowles headed wide from a Grant corner just before the break.
The hosts started the second period in more purposeful fashion and Forrest was unfortunate to see a goalbound effort from inside the box cleared off the line by Connor Randall.
The winger was not to be denied, however, and he opened the scoring in the 59th minute when he knocked in a low driven cross from Alex Cochrane from close range.
Hearts doubled their lead in the 77th minute after McKay latched on to a ball over the top from Cochrane and produced a sublime piece of skill to get himself clear and slot beyond Ross Laidlaw from close range.
County gave themselves hope two minutes later when substitute White got in behind the home defence and forced the ball beyond the exposed Gordon from inside the box, but the hosts held firm thereafter.
What the managers said…
Hearts boss Robbie Neilson: “In the first half, we showed the rustiness of coming into competitive games from pre-season.
“One of the plus sides of being in Europe is you can build into pre-season. But one of the down sides is you’re not involved in the Premier Sports Cup, which I think is a great cup because you can come in and play four games and it’s competitive. And I just felt the first half we didn’t have that competitive edge we needed, that energy to break forward. The second half was miles better after we spoke to them.
“Sometimes when you are out there and it’s 200 miles per hour and you need to come in and settle down and realise, ‘Right, this is it now, the league has started’.
“You can talk all you want in the build-up to it, but you need to be at it. When you go out there it can sometimes come at you like that. I think it was just about settling down the players and making them realise what they needed to do, and we managed to do that.
“I thought they were very good. Similar to last season, energy, pressing, aggressive, making it very difficult for us to play. We knew they’d come with a front three and would try and get after us. I just didn’t feel we showed the intensity we needed in the first half.”
Ross County boss Malky Mackay: “I’m proud of them for being able to give the performance they gave.
“First half they were absolutely terrific. If we had gone in 2-0 up it would not have been an unfair score. But we’ve got to take those chances because Hearts are clinical and they pushed right on to us in the second half.”
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