International class takes Hearts from mediocre to sublime against Inverness
Two moments of quality took Hearts from mediocre to sublime against Inverness to secure their seventh successive victory.
International strikers can have that effect in the second tier, illustrated by goals from Scotland’s Steven Naismith and Northern Ireland’s Liam Boyce.
After an ordinary and at-times sloppy first-half display by the hosts at Tynecastle Park, Naismith’s first-time hooked finish and Boyce’s daring heel flick put them in a seemingly comfortable position.
The final stages of the Scottish Championship encounter became more fraught after Aaron Doran’s glancing header halved the deficit, but Hearts saw the game out to continue their 100 per cent record in all competitions.
Inverness were tenacious and attack-minded and managed to stop their opponents finding cohesion in the first 45 minutes. International class ultimately proved the difference.
Robbie Neilson’s players surfed a wave of euphoria all week after beating Hibs in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden Park, so perhaps some kind of comedown wasn’t entirely unexpected.
"After last week we came back to the league and were trying to avoid that situation. It's just good to get a win against a good side when you aren't playing your best,” said Boyce.
His delightful flick from Olly Lee’s cutback was the undoubted highlight of the afternoon. "I probably should have scored in the first half. The ball got squared, it was just behind me and I tried to take a touch,” he recalled.
"I just keep getting into those areas and one of them will fall to you. Thankfully, I took one in the second half.
"The gaffer wanted to change the mentality. Last year was disappointing, turning up to games and getting into a wee bit of a rut. He wanted to change that from the word go.
"Even in pre-season, he was banging it into us that we want a winning mentality and we want to win every game – convincingly if we can, but a win is a win. It keeps the momentum going.”
John Robertson’s teams always try to go forward and Saturday was no different despite the huge chasm in the respective playing budgets. Inverness lost 1-0 at Tynecastle in the Betfred Cup a month ago.
"We knew from the previous game in the cup that we would have the energy to match Hearts and we've done that again,” said their manager. “I thought we got about them really well and restricted Hearts to a couple of half-chances in the first half.
"We weren't enough of a threat ourselves, that's what we said to the players at half-time. We got from halfway from our half to halfway in their half pretty well, but when we needed that little bit of quality, that extra ingredient in the last third, we didn't work Craig Gordon a lot.
"We've got young players and they'll learn. The second goal was a hell of a finish as Wallace Duffy has got himself in a good defensive position to stop Boyce getting to the near post, but he's produced a bit of magic.
"We stuck at it and started to cause them problems, we get the goal and suddenly Hearts are hanging on."
Eyes on the Euros
Boyce is now on international duty with Northern Ireland desperate to continue the goalscoring form. They face Slovakia in Belfast on Thursday for the right to a place at next summer’s European Championship finals.
Having been overlooked for the squad as a Ross County player when his country qualified for Euro 2016, Boyce’s motivation to reach a major tournament is now burning.
"I missed out on the last one. I'm like Scotland, I haven't been to one yet,” he laughed. “I'm hoping we do get through and that I keep scoring goals to get in the squad this time.
"I want to force my way in. Last time I dipped off at the tail end of the season and didn't get selected. I'm trying not to leave it to chance this time.
"It was disappointing not to get picked but I don't think I had an argument. I think Griggsy [Will Grigg] scored about 40 that season. If I'd kept my goalscoring form up, I'm sure I would have been in but I can only blame myself.”
He is entitled to wonder whether fate was at work to avoid putting him in an impossible position. His daughter, Scout, was born just as Northern Ireland kicked off in France that summer.
"The first game in that Euros was the day my daughter was born, so I'm happy I didn't have to make a decision to leave and go home. It was bittersweet but my daughter being born was massive,” said the forward.
‘I feel more at home’
Hearts’ controversial drop from Premiership to Championship in Scotland didn’t affect his international prospects. Northern Ireland’s new manager Ian Baraclough was quickly in touch to allay any concerns Boyce or his Tynecastle colleague Michael Smith might have been experiencing.
"As soon as the gaffer got the job he phoned me and was like: 'You need to get playing.' I think he was more worried because our league was starting later and the internationals were so early in the season.
"The gaffer here was brilliant as well, trying to fit in games. It's gone perfectly so far.”
Boyce said he now feels an established part of the Northern Ireland group. "When I was at Ross County and in the Irish league, you're going and training and you don't really think you will get on the pitch,” he explained.
"As time has gone on, I've stayed in the squad. Even when I was injured, I came back and got back in. Being with a massive club like Hearts is going to help.
"Everyone is close and I feel more confident with everyone in and around the squad. I feel more at home now. At the start you're a bit nervous and think you're only there to make up the numbers.”