Momentum has taken hold at Tynecastle ahead of the League Cup semi-final.
Hearts have two successive victories for the first time this season and are in buoyant mood. Now they must transfer the feel-good factor to the other side of Edinburgh, where they meet Inverness at Easter Road on Sunday for a place in the League Cup final.
Confidence levels are higher than they have been for months following last night’s rousing 2-1 win over St Mirren. Gary Locke’s young team is playing with a hint of flair and panache, and scoring goals – that’s seven in the last three games. Their cause was helped when the visitors were reduced to ten men early in the second half – Marc McAusland red carded for conceding the penalty from which Jamie Hamill scored the winning goal. That decision angered the visiting manager Danny Lennon – St Mirren produced a fine performance in Gorgie, that much should not be overlooked – yet there is unquestionably more substance to Hearts at the moment.
This game was rearranged by Hearts to let Ryan Stevenson serve the second of a two-game suspension, thus freeing him for Sunday’s semi-final. It should have been an inconvenience. In truth, it was anything but as both teams passed the ball crisply and contributed to an open, entertaining match.
Two goals inside the opening four minutes – both headers from Steven Thompson and Callum Paterson – set the tone for the evening, but the winner proved contentious.
McAusland appeared to put a hand on Dale Carrick just as he entered the penalty area and, after the striker fell, referee Steven McLean initially seemed to indicate a free-kick. Within a millisecond, however, McLean was pointing to the spot. A few seconds later, McAusland was off and Hamill stroked the winner into the corner of the net.
“We played with a lot of confidence again,” said Locke, mindful of Saturday’s 2-1 win at Ross County. “We’ve shown tremendous character all season and we’ve had a lot of lows, but this week has been great for us. Winning gives everybody a lift, not just myself. It also helps the players, the backroom team and the supporters. I’ve been over the moon with the way the boys have performed.
“Ryan is now available for the weekend, but these boys have done very well. It’s great to have a player of Ryan’s quality to come back in because I couldn’t fill the bench last night. We still lack that wee bit of experience to see games out, you saw that towards the end. The players got a wee bit nervous, but their effort, work rate and commitment to the cause is unquestionable.”
St Mirren started aggressively and were headed into the lead after just 30 seconds of play by Thompson. He climbed highest to meet Conor Newton’s cross and catch the Hearts defence cold. However, three minutes later, parity was restored when David Smith’s deflected cross was headed home by Paterson.
That eventful opening continued in what evolved into a very entertaining game. Paterson powered another header goalwards after some exquisite skill and a cross by Sam Nicholson. There to deny him was the former Hearts goalkeeper Marian Kello, now the established first choice in Paisley.
At the opposite end, the sprightly Paul McGowan found himself unmarked when Adam Campbell’s delivery arrived at the back post. His header was tame and Dylan McGowan cleared before Thompson could pounce on the loose ball. McGowan – St Mirren’s most creative player – tried again on the half-hour mark with a powerful shot on the turn which Jamie MacDonald gathered after two attempts.
Both teams displayed attractive football, with the ball being clipped around on the surface at a frenetic rate. St Mirren came closest to scoring again before the interval when centre-back McAusland crashed a diving header off the crossbar from John McGinn’s corner kick.
The second half began in similarly hectic fashion to the first. Jim Goodwin was booked for elbowing Carrick in a challenge before a scramble in the St Mirren six-yard area saw Danny Wilson’s header hit the crossbar and Paterson’s follow-up shot blocked by Newton. Hearts sensed the chance to plunder a second goal and were soon awarded a penalty.
Carrick sprinted on to Smith’s through ball and fell just inside the 18-yard box when McAusland put his hands on the striker’s back. The St Mirren defender received an instant red card for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. Hamill placed his penalty-kick low to Kello’s left with consummate ease.
With the visitors reduced to ten men, this game was now Hearts’ to lose. St Mirren weren’t for parking the bus, though, and pressed forward in search of an equaliser.
Substitute Gregg Wylde offered an injection of pace which troubled the home defence and on 67 minutes MacDonald took to the air to beat away Goodwin’s goalbound free-kick. Soon after, Wylde’s cross was diverted over the bar by Thompson at full stretch.
Hearts forced a corner with 15 minutes left, which was half cleared before Carrick struck an upright from Brad McKay’s backheader. It was a nervy ending to the night for the home support. Another run and cross by Wylde presented Thompson with a glaring chance to equalise, but he somehow managed to volley high into the Roseburn Stand from around six yards.
In the dying moments, an outstanding double save from Kello denied Hearts a decisive third goal. The dominant Scott Robinson dispatched a swerving 25-yard attempt which the Slovakian parried with one hand. The rebound fell for teenage substitute Gary Oliver, but Kello reacted instinctively to hold his first-time shot.
The final whistle brought rapturous cheers from the Hearts fans in appreciation of their team’s efforts. St Mirren, on the other hand, left Edinburgh with a bitter taste in their mouths.
“I’m angry and I’m angry at the fact it was a game that was there for the taking, certainly in the second half,” said Lennon. “A big, big decision has gone against us within the first five minutes of the second half and it has cost us dearly.
“I’m angry with the decision. I’m not angry with the performance because I thought, even with ten men, the energy they brought and the opportunities we created, we had Hearts on the back foot. You can certainly see this young Hearts side are maturing. They brought a lot to the game, but it was a big, big decision that has cost us.
“I’ve watched it four or five times and I’m still inconclusive whether there is any contact at all. If you’re asking me ‘is it inside the box?’ No, it’s not. Sometimes they go for you and sometimes they don’t. I certainly thought it was a game-changer in terms of trying to control the game.”