ANY sense that Hearts might not have quite as much fun in the top flight, or score as many goals as they did romping the Championship, was dispelled by this rollicking affair. St Johnstone were every bit the stiffer challenge they would have expected but the Gorgie team prevailed, just, in a best-of-seven ding-dong.
After the build-up to their return to the Premiership, with everyone saying how good it would be to have Hearts back and many predicting a third-place finish, the last thing Robbie Neilson would have wanted was to see his team fluff their lines – not least on the day when Tynecastle owner Ann Budge hoisted the title flag in front of a sell-out crowd.
The flag didn’t flutter and sat limp for a while and this was the team for much of the first half, despite taking an early lead which should have settled any nerves. Their best spell, characterised by many dangerous breakaways, came midway through the second half when they extended their lead to 3-1 – the worst when they almost immediately allowed Saints to level the contest. Sam Nicholson scored what proved to be the decisive goal with ten minutes remaining.
St Johnstone had two ex-Jambos in their line-up, John Sutton and Brad McKay, and it was the latter who got off to the worst possible start with his new club, to ensure Juanma Delgado got off to the best with his. Only three minutes had elapsed when the defender lost his footing just outside his box. The Spaniard had the simplest of tasks to relieve him of the ball which was causing him so much concern and slip it past Alan Mannus.
Juanma is, as they say, a big unit and Hearts were happy to play the long game for a while, Osman Sow not exactly being diminutive either. Indeed, all over the park Hearts looked brawny and certainly right across the backline where the presence of Blazej Augustyn and Igor Rossi suggested Saints wouldn’t have much joy with hopeful high balls.
Nevertheless, it was from a couple of them that they reminded the Gorgie men they weren’t there to make up the numbers and clear away the tables after the party, although any slight danger was averted.
The Perth team persisted with this approach, though, and the Hearts defence – after Saints had been forced to make a change, captain Chris Millar being replaced by Scott Brown whose name was greeted with a chorus of boos before the announcer confirmed: “Not that one” – suffered their most serious bout of collywobbles when the ball bobbled alarmingly in the box. The pressure didn’t abate until Wotherspoon tumbled and demanded a penalty. Referee Steven McLean wasn’t interested and frustrated Saints manager Tommy Wright stamped the ground with a smart brown suede shoe.
Hearts still had the lead but Saints were the dominant team for the rest of the half through the probings of Wotherspoon, Brown and Simon Lappin. Some respite came with a Sam Nicholson free-kick which produced a shooting chance for new club captain Alim Ozturk but, leaning back, his attempt sailed over. Soon after, Sow caused some panic with a zig-zagging run past three men before being halted on the six-yard line. Then the same player ballooned over, a clear indication of Hearts’ anxiety. Few opportunities were coming the team’s way and, almost inevitably, they were snatching at them.
Back came Saints with the move of the match up until that point. Wotherspoon, Joe Shaughnessy and Michael O’Halloran all made clever contributions in shifting the ball from right to left and Lappin’s long, deep cross was met with a thudding Sutton header at the back post. Nicholson had to be acrobatic to prevent the equaliser which would have been merited.
Liam Craig, the former Hibs captain back at Saints, would have had a sense of déjà vu if he’d remembered how his old team had played well at Tynecastle last season without getting much reward. St Johnstone picked up where they left off after the break, O’Halloran crossing dangerously from the left, but there were no takers.
Juanma, quiet-to-invisible since his goal all those many minutes before, turned neatly in the Saints box to create a chance but squirted the shot wide. The towering frontman was still drawing on the confidence of his goal, though, and, on 52 minutes, he began the attack which led to Hearts’ second.
Deep in his own half he pulled down a high ball with no little deft, then turned and horsed up the park. As he neared the opposition box, his slipped ball to Nicholson was perfect. The young wide midfielder was clattered as he rounded Mannus and, while the Saints goalie, who was booked, saved Sow’s spot-kick, Jamie Walker banged in the rebound.
This was hard on St Johnstone, although they got back into the game four minutes later when a long throw by Shaughnessy was fumbled by Neil Alexander, presenting the lively Lappin with an easy score.
But the comeback stalled was stalled when Callum Paterson made it three goals in a nine-minute spell, his cool finish treating Walker’s clever pass with the respect it deserved.
Hearts were finally able to express themselves and Nicholson should have made it four when he dispossessed Scobie and tried to lift the net off its moorings, missing the target entirely.
This knocked St Johnstone, who spent the next ten minutes in a bit of a dwam. Juanma, the new hero, engineered a foul for himself underneath the old main stand and took the applause while dusting himself down. The fans could almost smell victory but a lovely cross by Wotherspoon with a quarter remaining enabled Sutton to guide home a header to give Saints a lifeline and they equalised three minutes later when another Shaughnessy throw-in caused panic, substitute Graham Cummins capitalising without knowing too much about his finish. Then, almost from the restart, Paterson – named man-of-the-match for his all-action performance on the right flank – angled another low ball to Nicholson and the game was finally won.
Hearts: 4 - Delgado (3), Walker (52), Paterson (62) Nicholson (80)
St Johnstone: 3 - Lappin (56), Sutton (75), Cummins (78)
Referee: S McLean