Caley Thistle can approach the league season with renewed confidence despite falling to a 1-0 Premier Sports Cup loss against Hearts at Tynecastle.
Inverness knew prior to a ball being kicked they had no prospect of advancing further in the competition, with the test of Premiership opposition in Hearts providing them with a beneficial exercise with Saturday’s Championship opener at Arbroath firmdly in mind.
Caley Jags stood up bravely to the challenge of the toughest side they have faced during their Group A campaign, however Jamie Walker’s goal 15 minutes from time left them empty-handed from a game they finished with 10 men following Michael Gardyne’s dismissal.
Billy Dodds made three changes from the side which went down 3-1 to Cove Rangers in midweek, with Cameron Harper, Aaron Doran and Scott Allardice making way for Danny Devine, Tom Walsh and Roddy MacGregor. Newly-signed forward Lewis Jamieson was among the substitutes, following his loan move from St Mirren.
There was an early scare for Caley Jags on six minutes when Josh Ginnelly went to ground under the close attention of Wallace Duffy, however the winger was booked for diving.
Inverness began to settle into the match, with Gardyne looking threatening down the left, and he sent an effort into the side netting after being played in by MacGregor.
Robbie Deas was next to try his luck, with a long-range effort which was deflected into the arms of Craig Gordon, while at the other end Mark Ridgers was called into action for the first time to beat away a powerful Liam Boyce drive.
Inverness kept up their threat, with Reece McAlear seeing a free-kick well parried by Gordon on 20 minutes.
The Jambos’ were denied on 32 minutes when Armand Gnanduillet capitalised on a slack pass by Duffy to run through on goal, with his low effort from the inside-left channel blocked to safety by the feet of Ridgers.
The Highlanders had a glorious opportunity to take the lead four minutes later when Sutherland’s cross picked out Walsh untracked inside the box, however youngster Alex Cochrane made amends for the lack of marking with an excellent recovery challenge to thwart the winger’s otherwise certain goal.
Hearts troubled through a Stephen Kingsley free-kick which flew marginally over, while Boyce hit the side-netting from a tight angle, however the hosts’ best chance of the first half arrived in stoppage time, with a close-range Finlay Pollock effort met by an outstanding save from Ridgers.
Inverness had otherwise been relatively comfortable in containing their top-flight opponents, showing a marked defensive improvement from the side which conceded five goals in their previous two games against Stirling Albion and Cove.
Hearts enjoyed a spell of pressure at the start of the second half, with Gary Mackay-Steven seeing a shot beaten behind by Ridgers, before the post somehow kept out Gnanduillet and Pollock in close succession from the resulting corner, before the ball was gathered by the grateful Caley Jags goalkeeper.
Caley Thistle weathered the storm, with their first opening after the break coming when Gardyne played in MacGregor, whose low strike from the edge of the box drifted wide of target.
Dodds looked to shore up his side for the final 20 minutes, with Allardice brought on for Manny Duku who had led the line bravely without seeing many glimpses of goal.
Just as it looked like Inverness would hold firm, Hearts grabbed the all-important opener on 75 minutes. A neat move saw Gnanduillet flick the ball on for Boyce, who slipped it through for Walker to drill a low drive past Ridgers less than 10 minutes after coming on as a substitute.
Walker saw three further efforts saved by the outstanding Ridgers as Hearts pushed for a clinching second goal, with Gardyne shown his marching orders in the dying stages for a meaty challenge on the midfielder.
HEARTS (4-3-3) – Gordon 6; M Smith 6, Halkett 6, Kingsley 7, Cochrane 7; Pollock 7 (Walker 66), Haliday 6 (Haring 66), Boyce 6; Ginnelly 6, Gnanduillet 6 (Henderson 85), Mackay-Steven 6. Subs not used – Stewart, McEneff, C Smith, Popescu, Watson, Denholm.
CALEY THISTLE (4-4-1-1) – Ridgers 8; Duffy 6, Broadfoot 6, Devine 6 (Fyffe 76), Deas 6 (Harper 76); Walsh 6 (McDonald 81)s, MacGregor 7, McAlear 6, Gardyne 6; Sutherland 7 (Jamieson 81); Duku 6 (Allardice 70). Subs not used – Mackay, Hyde, Hennem, Cairns.
Referee – Nick Walsh
Attendance – 2,989
Man of the match: Mark Ridgers