ON the face of it, one solitary point does little to alter Hearts’ stance at the foot of the Scottish Premiership.
They are now 13 points behind second-bottom Ross County instead of 14. It is now about how this result, and specifically the confidence-boosting second-half performance, is harnessed over the next few crucial matches. That may well be the biggest test of Gary Locke’s fledgling managerial career.
Jamie Hamill’s spectacular equalising goal in Paisley had an invigorating effect on Hearts. It was their second goal of a sparse December and ultimately ended a five-game losing streak. St Mirren had looked comfortable during a first half in which they scored after only two minutes through Steven Thompson. The visitors emerged to attack after the interval and Hamill delivered a thunderous 25-yarder to restore parity on 48 minutes.
What struck a chord, though, was the control they exerted thereafter. Their younger players seemed to take much encouragement from Hamill’s strike and poured forward at every opportunity. St Mirren were pressed back and looked rattled at times.
Indeed, Hearts would have won this game with the last kick but for their former goalkeeper Marian Kello. His point-blank save from Callum Paterson prevented a certain winner. However, it should not be forgotten that St Mirren had a strong penalty claim rejected with the score at 1-1. Conor Newton’s shot struck Brad McKay’s arm, albeit the defender knew little about it.
Overall, the second 45 minutes offered many positives for Locke to take into Thursday evening’s New Year Edinburgh derby at Easter Road. It is now down to the manager, his assistant Billy Brown and coaches Robbie Neilson and Alan Combe to nurture the confidence witnessed yesterday.
“Boxing Day was one of only two times this season when I’ve been deeply disappointed,” said Locke of the 4-0 home defeat by Kilmarnock. “There were a few choice words after that game and we asked for a response. I thought we got that in abundance, especially in the second half, and it’s important we take that type of performance into the games coming up.
“It was a poor goal we lost because we had a couple of chances to clear it before Thompson scored. We reacted in the right manner and got ourselves back in the game. There wasn’t much in the first half, but in the second half I thought we were dominant and very unlucky not to get three points.
“It was a fantastic goal from Hamill. That summed up his performance for me. He got back to doing what he was doing earlier in the season. He covered every blade of grass, he passed it well, he won tackles. In that type of form, he’s a big asset for us.
“I was more pleased with the performance. Coming off the back of such a bad display, we needed to respond having such a huge travelling support again. It was important to give them something to shout about and I thought we did that in the second half.”
Kello’s save from Paterson was every bit as mesmerising as Hamill’s strike. Substitute David Smith crossed from the right and the teenager took to the air six yards out for a left-footed volley which the Slovakian smothered. “I’m saying I couldn’t believe it, but, having worked Marian, he’s capable of that. He’s a top goalkeeper,” said Locke. “I thought it was in, but Kello pulled off two or three saves in the game.”
“I thought I’d scored,” said Paterson. “I couldn’t have caught it any better. It was just a great save from Kello. If we didn’t lose a sloppy goal in the first couple of minutes we’d have taken all three points. Silly mistakes are costing us points. Three points would have taken us to zero and the only way is up from there.
“Ross County and Partick Thistle are slipping up, so we have to start collecting points. We’re off the losing streak now, at least. The zero mark is only one win away, so we’ll need to see what we can do against Hibs. We’ve won at Easter Road already and beaten them twice this season, so we’ll need to try and make it three out of three.”
St Mirren were subdued for spells in the game by Hearts’ industry. Hamill was particularly influential and young Kevin McHattie at left-back enjoyed an excellent afternoon. Up front, Ryan Stevenson returned earlier than expected from a hamstring injury after missing the last three games. His presence was vital.
The hosts did most of their attacking in the first half, with 19-year-old right-back Jason Naismith their most prominent player going forward. Thompson’s early goal could have been the start of a comfortable afternoon for the Paisley side, but Hearts’ defiance ensured a different outcome.
“It was a terrific start for us,” said Danny Lennon, the St Mirren manager. “I was delighted we kept the momentum going forward and created good opportunities. The only thing we didn’t have in the first half was another goal to go with that.
“We regrouped at half-time and we warned the players. We knew Hearts were going to fight for every single point. I think that shows by their five yellow cards to our none. By no means am I saying it was a dirty game, but it just shows you how committed they are.
“I must take my hat off to Hamill. I thought his technique was fantastic for the goal, but I’m very disappointed because we had three good opportunities to clear the ball. The third one put the ball right into an area where we know he is particularly strong. We then built up a bit of momentum up the other end and I thought we should have had a stonewall penalty.”
The result will have renewed belief in some that Hearts can get out of their current predicament and avoid relegation. That their 15-point deficit means they have still not reached zero remains a concern with half the campaign now complete. Locke, though, is adamant their aim is achievable.
“Of course we still have belief. The main thing for us is keeping everyone fit. You saw the importance of getting Ryan Stevenson back, who makes a big difference to us. We don’t have a lot of experienced players so we need the ones we do have to stay fit. Jason Holt will be back soon, as will Gary Oliver. If we can keep everybody fit, we’ll give ourselves a better chance.”