THERE was little escaping Paulo Sergio’s anger as Hearts delivered arguably their poorest performance of the season at St Johnstone.
It is now 15 games since they last won away from home, dating back to February 12, and their manager was enraged by the manner of this defeat.
Sergio blamed errors by his players for handing St Johnstone the initiative and felt his team maintained control of proceedings in Perth for much of the afternoon. That wasn’t entirely true, for St Johnstone deserved their win both on balance of play and for the fact they harboured a cutting edge. Hearts’ lack of creativity and dynamism in the final third proved costly.
Cillian Sheridan scored his first two goals for St Johnstone, both from incisive Francisco Sandaza passes, which was sufficient to dispense with their visitors. Hearts endured the ignominy of exiting the Scottish Communities League Cup to Ayr United last Wednesday and were expected to produce a response, but instead they looked toothless and, at times, incohesive.
“It was a bad performance but there were worse things than the performance,” said Sergio. “When the game starts, you could see Hearts controlling the game and trying to play our game. We were defending well against their kind of game with long balls in behind us and the big guys in front. We should do better with the ball in the first half, there was not enough movement up front and that did not help us create chances to score.
“In the second half we moved the ball better but we had a second mistake. Our goalkeeper doesn’t make a save all game but loses two goals. These are things we are giving goals to our opponents. It’s not the first time and that is worrying me a lot. You can’t win games giving goals away like this and I am worried about that.
“When we started the game we could see Hearts had the ball and were trying to play but we are giving confidence to our opponents and we have to stop that. Maybe we had more than 60 per cent possession of the ball but that’s not enough, we have to score. I’m sure if you aren’t giving goals to your opponents then you will have a cool head in the moment when you have to finish your goals.
“We are putting ourselves under pressure with mistakes in the games. But I don’t want to take any credit away from St Johnstone. I congratulate my opponents because whoever scored deserves to win.”
Sandaza slid a sublime through pass in behind the Hearts rearguard for Sheridan on the half-hour, and the Irishman waited for Jamie MacDonald to emerge before dispatching the ball high in to the net.
Liam Craig should have doubled the advantage moments later, although a Danny Grainger free-kick was held by Peter Enckelman and Ryan Stevenson headed wide from close range prior to the interval.
Sergio withdrew Andy Webster at half-time for tactical reasons, with David Templeton the replacement. “I didn’t find him [Webster] very well in the game,” said Sergio. “I put Adrian Mrowiec in the defensive position to have a more technical midfield and play the ball better. It was just tactical, not injury.”
Hearts adopted a 4-2-3-1 formation hoping to restore parity, but St Johnstone scored again by virtue of another instinctive through ball from Sandaza.
A long ball fell in Saints’ attacking third and the Spaniard won possession from Jamie Hamill then threaded the ball into Sheridan’s path. Looking cool and composed as defenders closed in, he rounded the advancing MacDonald and calmly rolled his finish into an empty net.
Enckelman spilled Hamill’s venomous 20-yard drive, and seconds later pushed Ryan Stevenson’s backward header to safety as Hearts attempted a response before the end. Their efforts were ultimately fruitless, for Enckelman was tested only sporadically throughout the afternoon. That was attributable to St Johnstone’s tenacity and unity, for they made themselves the proverbial tough nut to crack.
“I’m very pleased, I thought we thoroughly deserved the win because we were the better side,” said the Perth club’s manager, Derek McInnes. “The first goal is very important in any game and once you get that there’s an element of control. Hearts played in and around us but never got through us at any time. We restricted them to very few opportunities and we stopped their better players having an effect on the game, which is very important when you come up against the better sides.
“I think Hearts will be third in the SPL again this season, I think they’re best equipped to do it. It’s no mean feat to beat them. To do that we had to work really hard. It was exactly the response I was looking for after we lost to St Mirren in the League Cup. We were clinical at one end, dogged, resilient and hard-working.”
In a stark contrast to last season, St Johnstone now carry a genuine attacking threat through Sandaza and Sheridan. “Fran’s been getting a lot of plaudits and rightly so, he’s given us swagger and ability up top. But we also recognise how well Cillian’s been working,” continued McInnes.
“He occupies defenders and as a pair they are good to work with. Both have presence and ability to score.
“Cillian is very quick off the mark, he times his runs well and he finishes. We persevered with him although he hasn’t been scoring goals. We’ve worked with him before, it took him a wee while to get going last time then he went on a run of goals. Hopefully he can do the same again. I’m pleased for him. We worked hard for that win, against Hearts you need to work hard but I’m pleased for big Cillian.
“I can feel it myself, I feel we’ve got that threat. In our first season in the SPL, I think we were third highest scorers in the league. There’s nothing better, but if you’re not scoring goals and you lose one then you need two to win. We have more looseness and freedom right now and the two boys we have just now are scoring. We’ve also had more goals from the middle of the park, so we aren’t finding goals hard to come by.”