Extra time came ten days later than Paulo Sergio expected, but Hearts were afforded just enough time to salvage their Scottish Cup dreams in dramatic fashion on Valentine’s night.
Sergio confessed that he had no notion of a replay as St Johnstone held his team to a 1-1 draw at Tynecastle a week and a half ago and fully expected an additional half hour, and perhaps penalties, to settle the original tie there and then.
Instead, his charges had to rely on a second injury time goal in four days – after salvaging a league draw at Kilmarnock in the dying minutes – to deny St Johnstone victory in regulation time at McDiarmid Park last night before skipper Marius Zaliukas converted an extra-time strike to ensure St Mirren will visit Tynecaslte in the quarter final of the national tournament.
“Maybe I have to make a confession here for you,” Sergio said after last night’s win. “In the first game at Tynecastle, I made a stupid mistake – I was waiting for extra time. With a lot of things you are worried about every day, sometimes you lose your focus from where it should be. If you see the image at the end of the game at Tynecastle, I was surprised when Steve [Lomas] came to me to shake my hand. I told my players about that already, because that’s the way I am. In Portugal, you have extra time and penalties. I wanted to shoot myself in the head!”
A healthy Hearts support numbering around 1500 – a thousand more than at Rugby Park four days earlier – gave their favourites a rousing reception, but it was St Johnstone making all the noises on the pitch early on as the opening exchanges centred in and around Jamie MacDonald’s goal.
The volume among the visiting support, momentarily muted as their side struggled to gain a foothold in the game, was amplified moments later when Rudi Skacel’s quick free-kick fed Mehdi Taouil on the left flank after Jody Morris’s clumsy foul on David Obua. With Saints’ defence exposed by the clever run of Stephen Elliott, Taouil failed to gain advantage by choosing to compose himself before crossing into the box rather than keep the ball in motion and slide it square into the path of his team-mate’s run.
Despite failing on that occasion to test Saints keeper Alan Mannus, the Northern Irish custodian who replaced Peter Enckelman after the latter endured an ignominious showing in the 5-1 home defeat to Dundee United four days earlier, Hearts settled sufficiently to begin stroking the ball around with more authority.
In a rare break towards MacDonald’s goal, Davidson supplied Sheridan with the chance to shoot from 20 yards, and the former Celtic striker’s deflected effort required a quick reaction by the Hearts keeper, who sprawled to his right to block.
Both sets of fans were on their feet shortly before half-time after Sheridan sprinted clear on the left, only for his shirt to be tugged by Danny Grainger. Despite retaining possession, Sheridan stepped away from the ball and seemed to swing an arm at his assailant. Both were booked for their respective indiscretions, but the Saints man was perhaps fortunate to avoid a harsher punishment.
Luck eluded Hearts early in the second half, with Andy Webster sticking out a leg to apply any degree of contact to Skacel’s hard, drilled cross. The ball spun narrowly wide, close enough to elicit a gasp of frustration from the away fans behind the goal.
Hearts’ fans were audibly enthusiastic about the prospect of David Templeton emerging to light up a fading game as the player stepped off the bench, but their appreciation of Sergio’s decision to introduce the winger was tempered by the sight of David Obua trudging off the pitch. The Jambo hordes clearly felt more deserving candidates – perhaps in the mould of the largely ineffective Taouil or Skacel – should have been replaced instead.
If Paulo Sergio did not satisfy the wishes of the away fans with that particular substitution, he at least found favour among the home support moments later by withdrawing ex-Saints defender Grainger, the object of abuse by pockets of the Perth public, and fielding Ryan McGowan.
As extra time loomed, tension engulfed McDiarmid Park. The technical area next to the substitutes’ benches failed to prove impermeable to the air of frustration, as Hearts boss Sergio vented his exasperation at MacDonald’s failure to instigate a quick counter attack by booting a drinks bottle.
Latin temperament threatened to get the better of the Portuguese coach once more on 84 minutes, as Hearts conceded the game’s opening goal in wholly avoidable circumstances. The finish by Saints midfielder Davidson, a plum strike into the top right-hand corner from 15 yards, was more than fit to settle the tie, but Sergio was left to wonder why his experienced back four were posted missing as home sub Lee Croft found his team-mate with a precise pass into the box.
Elliott and Mrowiec did their best to haul Hearts level with strikes that came close to beating the impressive Saints stopper Mannus. That feat was achieved by an unlikely source with just 15 seconds of injury time left on the clock. Elliott sprayed a crossfield pass to substitute Suso Santana, and the winger darted towards the bye-line. As he checked to play a cutback to the lurking Skacel, Suso collided with ex-Jambo Alan Maybury and fell to the ground. Maybury was incensed by the perceived theatricals of his Hearts counterpart, but the sympathy of referee Brian Winter rested with Suso.
As he stepped up to strike the resulting spot-kick, Jamie Hamill shouldered not only the responsibility of scoring with virtually the last kick of regulation time in front of a huge Hearts support to keep his side in the cup but the pressure of merely assuming the task of taking the penalty. It is a role that has been scorned by fortune in recent months, with the last four penalties awarded to Hearts all missed, by Hamill himself, Eggert Jonsson, Ian Black and Fraser Mullen.
The right-back confidently ended his side’s desperate record from 12 yards by arrowing a powerful strike low into the left-hand corner, with the goal provoking bedlam among ecstatic Hearts fans.
Early in extra time, Sandaza flashed a strike high and wide early in extra time and the Spaniard was then denied by a superb reflex save by MacDonald. Skacel and Templeton came close for the visitors, but it appeared as though Hearts’ lack of invention, particularly in the final third, would determine that their best hopes of victory would lie in the lottery of penalties.
Instead, with their only shot on target in extra time, Hearts stole a place in the last eight of the Scottish Cup. With 117 minutes on the clock, Webster’s shot from Hamill’s corner struck the crossbar, and defender Zaliukas bundled the ball into the net and his team into the next round.
“If you are putting a central defender to play as a striker, it means the game is not over,” said Sergio, who had thrown the Lithuanian into a striking role late on. “I think St Johnstone deserved, at that point, to be out of the cup. We created the better chances in the game. We didn’t play a very good game – we worked in a very different style to the one we work on every day [in training] – but that was the strategy.
“It was not a beautiful game, but St Johnstone did not have the chances and the space to do what they can do.”
At full time, the Capital contingent among the crowd rejoiced in the match-winning performance of their captain by inserting his name into a song usually reserved for a conga, and the colourful Zaliukas performed a neat jig to accompany his own tune. Now, he is dreaming of a day in three months’ time where he leads a merry dance around Hampden Park after guiding Hearts to a third Scottish Cup in 15 years.