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Ross County boss Malky Mackay hails Blair Spittal for work on fitness after two goals in draw with Hearts

Blair Spittal in action for Ross County.
Blair Spittal in action for Ross County.

Ross County’s faithful remain enchanted by a hero of the recent past, even if he did inflict an early hammer blow upon them for Hearts.

In football, though, a new fans’ favourite is always just around the corner and Blair Spittal shows every sign of being next in line for the Staggies’ adulation.

Striker Liam Boyce was guaranteed a warm reception back at the Dingwall ground where he made his name over three fruitful seasons, eclipsing Celtic’s Moussa Dembele as top Premiership scorer in 2016/17.

When he slotted the capital club’s ninth minute opener, the Northern Irishman showed deference to the Jail End by refusing to celebrate the moment in the usual manner.

Liam Boyce after scoring Hearts’ opener.

After the final whistle, he would charm the home support in an even more profound way.

There had been a minute’s applause before kick-off for a stalwart County supporter who passed away during the week. To their credit, the big Hearts following joined a home chant of “Only one Gary Bisset”.

After the final whistle, Boyce made a bee-line to the stands to hand his match jersey to the supporter’s bereaved son.

It was a day of goodwill, then, in off-field matters – but, on it, a ferocious, highly-watchable contest would unfold.

Boyce’s crisp finish was wiped out within 90 seconds by a superbly-taken Spittal strike and the captain for the day doubled his tally in similar fashion on half-time to stoke hope of a first County win of the season.

Blair Spittal makes it 1-1.

Manager Malky Mackay’s gruelling first six games have pitted County – after a mass squad upheaval involving 28 comings and goings – against, arguably, the best six teams in the country.

They defended superbly in the second half against a team with European aspirations, but were undone by a brilliant Stephen Kingsley free-kick on 66 minutes.

Hearts’ Stephen Kingsley makes it 2-2 during the cinch Premiership match between Ross County and Hearts.

The quality of Spittal’s performance with the armband wasn’t missed by Mackay, who said: “I’ve known Blair for a number of years and, when I first came up, we had a chat about what was going right and what wasn’t going right here.

“He’s very fit now, which maybe wasn’t his strength at one point. He’s been terrific in what I’m getting from him every day. He’s a smashing character, a lively boy and he’s good for our dressing room.

“He’s absolutely on it and what I’m seeing is someone who is leading when mistakes happen and people need to be told.

“Blair has undoubted quality, with fantastic delivery, and can certainly score more.

“He had a strike against Celtic at Parkhead where he wasn’t set properly and snatched at it. We talked about that and against Hearts he took both goals brilliantly.”

Ross County’s Blair Spittal celebrates making it 2-1 with Jack Baldwin.

Mackay knows the clamour remains for a first Premiership victory of the season for County, but sees good progress amid mitigating circumstances.

“It was a very good game and, again, we’ve gone toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the league,” the former SFA performance director said.

“We’ve had Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hibs and Hearts now and we’ve created good chances against them all, with good patterns of play.

“I was delighted with the way we scored both goals – they were excellent – and we could have nicked it at the end.

“I would hope a win isn’t far away. I’m seeing signs. If we keep playing like that, we’ll be fine.”

Ross County manager Malky Mackay with Hearts player Stephen Kingsley.

Boyce’s opener was clinically-taken from the left side of the penalty area after work down the left by Stephen Kingsley and Gary Mackay-Steven.

County’s response, within 90 seconds, came when Jordan White expertly knocked a high ball into Spittal’s path and the midfielder rocketed a low finish into the left hand corner of Craig Gordon’s net.

Both sides had their share of chances, but County cursed a couple of close calls, once when White, perhaps dazed by a serious head knock, failed to connect square on goal and again when Ross Callachan volleyed inches over the bar.

Spittal struck the second from 12 yards to push County ahead after great work on the left from Regan Charles-Cook.

In the second half, Hearts were mostly on the front foot, but County were sturdy in defence.

It took a set-piece to breach them, with Kingsley’s swirling free-kick leaving Charlton loan keeper Ash Maynard-Brewer with no chance on his debut.

With five games now, against teams more likely to be around them in the league, County will hope the promise shown crystallizes into points and victories.


ROSS COUNTY (4-1-4-1) – Maynard-Brewer 6; Burroughs 7, Iacovitti 6, Baldwin 6, B. Paton 5; Tillson 6; Spittal 8 (Robertson 56, 5) H. Paton 7, Callachan 6 (Watson 82, 3), Charles-Cook 7 (Hungbo 89, 2); White 6. Subs: Laidlaw, Cancola, A. Samuel, D. Samuel, Watson.

Booked: B. Paton 64, Baldwin 73.

HEARTS (3-4-3) – Gordon 6; Moore 6, Halkett 7, Souttar 6; McKay 8, Baningime 6, Woodburn 5 (Walker 66, 5), Kingsley 7; Gnanduillet 6, Boyce 7, Mackay-Steven 6 (Devlin 56). Subs: Stewart, Haring, Walker, McEneff, Halliday, Cochrane.

Booked: Woodburn 42.

Referee: David Dickinson 8.

Attendance: 3,802.

Man of the match: Blair Spittal.