A valiant second half display by Ross County was not enough to avoid a 2-1 defeat to Hearts at Tynecastle.
The Jambos raced into a commanding lead, with goals from Michael Smith and Ben Woodburn capping off a dominant first half display.
County responded strongly after the interval though, with Jordan White halving the deficit, however Malky Mackay’s men were unable to secure a leveller.
The match was played behind closed doors following the Scottish Government’s fresh restrictions which took effect ahead of kick-off.
Although County ended 2021 in defeat, Mackay will take heart from his side’s recent form which has moved them up to 10th place, as they now halt for the winter break until their home match against Motherwell on January 18.
The Staggies made the trip to the capital with a depleted team, with skipper Keith Watson, goalkeeper Ash Maynard-Brewer and midfielder Ross Callachan all sidelined from the team which defeated St Johnstone 2-1 in midweek. That prompted recalls for Ross Laidlaw, Connor Randall and Dominic Samuel.
County made the worst possible start, with the Jambos taking the lead after only five minutes. Ben Woodburn worked his way past Harry Clarke before cutting the ball back towards Aaron McEneff. Although Laidlaw did well to block his low effort, there was nothing he could do to thwart Smith’s rebound.
The Staggies had to weather more pressure from the hosts in their pursuit of a second goal, with Laidlaw out sharply to block another McEneff effort, while Barrie Mckay saw a strike deflected wide.
County took time to impose their attacking threat but began to show promising signs as the first half wore on, with Regan Charles-Cook seeing an effort from the edge of the box blocked on 20 minutes.
Hearts remained dangerous though, with McEneff flashing a low drive narrowly wide of Laidlaw’s goal following a ball over the top by Peter Haring.
Smith should have doubled his tally on 28 minutes though when a neat interchange saw him played clean through by McEneff, but he snatched at his effort which trundled harmlessly wide.
County survived another scare four minutes later when Jack Baldwin’s clearance from a Woodburn delivery landed straight at the feet of John Souttar, however the Scotland international’s first-time effort came back off the crossbar.
Joseph Hungbo called Craig Gordon into action for the first time 60 seconds later after the Staggies broke upfield quickly but his low strike from the edge of the box was comfortably gathered.
County spurned an even better chance on 35 minutes when Jake Vokins’ delivery set up a free header for Samuel, but he flashed his effort well wide from a fine position.
The Staggies were hit on the counter attack for Hearts’ second goal on 42 minutes. A crossfield pass by Haring was well cushioned by Woodburn, with his strike from the edge of the box taking a huge deflection off Clarke which wrongfooted Laidlaw before bouncing into the net.
It nearly got even worse for the visitors a minute before the break, with Souttar striking the woodwork for the second time with a header bounced off the post before landing into the arms of Laidlaw.
Mackay made a half-time change with Jack Burroughs introduced in place of David Cancola. The Staggies looked to start the second half strongly with a Vokins delivery narrowly evading Samuel at the near post, while Blair Spittal saw a strike from distance flash well over.
Hungbo was next to threaten after being played in by Samuel’s pass on the hour mark but his strike lacked the pace to trouble Gordon.
The visitors had succeeded in limiting Hearts’ threat in the early stages of the second period, although Smith was not far away from connecting with a Woodburn delivery on 63 minutes.
Substitute Jamie Walker stung the gloves of Laidlaw with a strike five minutes later, after he had cut inside Baldwin into the box.
County found a route back into the game on 72 minutes though. A neat move saw Samuel thread in Hungbo down the right with his square ball clinically converted by White, whose first-time effort clipped the post on its way in.
The Dingall men continued to push in search of a leveller, with Charles-Cook seeing a strike blocked by Stephen Kingsley, while Clarke forced Gordon into action late on.
HEARTS (3-4-3) – Gordon 6; Souttar 7, Halkett 6 (Kingsley 50), Cochrane 6; Moore 6, Smith 7, Haring 7, Halliday 6; McEneff 7 (Walker 57), Woodburn 7 (Mackay-Steven 78), Mckay 6. Subs not used – McFarlane, Kingsley, Gnanduillet, Logan.
ROSS COUNTY (4-4-2) – Laidlaw 6; Randall 7, Clarke 6, Baldwin 6, Vokins 7; Hungbo 7, Spittal 6, Cancola 5 (Burroughs 46), Charles-Cook 6; D Samuel 6 (A Samuel 84), White 7. Subs not used – Munro, B Paton, Donaldson.
Referee – David Munro 6
Man of the match: Ben Woodburn