SUPPORTERS seated near Paulo Sergio in Tynecastle’s main stand aimed a few verbal volleys at the beleaguered Hearts manager before exiting the stadium. You can imagine the expletives used which, if nothing else, will have expanded the Portuguese’s English vocabulary.
The frustration was understandable at the end of a match in which the home team were once again unconvincing. Sergio, serving the third of a five-match touchline ban, sat behind the home dugout, next to the section N enclosure. He watched a performance lacking panache and littered with erratic defending. At the end, fingers pointed at him. He and his players were all the useless so-and-sos under the sun as fans vented their fury just yards away.
The Portuguese does indeed have a less-than-impressive record in charge of Hearts. In 19 games, he has mustered only seven wins. Four draws and eight defeats complete a set of statistics which few managers would be proud of. However, in his defence, there are some mitigating circumstances.
Trying to motivate a squad which has not been paid is a task few outside observers can truly appreciate. If Sergio wants a fully-functioning and thriving team, he might be well advised to get on the phone to Kaunas and demand that Vladimir Romanov process the wages his players have now been waiting 19 days for. Then again, such gumption could cost him his job, so it seems he is in a no-win situation.
None of the players he recommended to Romanov were recruited during August’s transfer window. That left him with a squad he inherited and privately his frustration grew. On Saturday, he left out the suspension-free Ian Black and dropped Ryan Stevenson and David Obua. It made little difference.
Sergio does himself few favours when it comes to tactics, though. Playing a lone striker – be it Ryan Stevenson, John Sutton or Stephen Elliott – is seriously restrictive for a team like Hearts who are expected to attack most SPL opponents. Sutton in particular has a commendable scoring record domestically but isolating him up front has destroyed his confidence. Saturday was a classic example of this as he toiled without a foil to link with. Some of his colleagues look to be losing faith too.
It is also worth asking how long Sergio can justify playing Marius Zaliukas. Andy Webster was replaced at half-time on Saturday harbouring a calf injury which might have contributed to his uneasy display during the first 45 minutes. He contributed to the confusion which granted St Johnstone a 1-0 interval lead. He headed Dave Mackay’s cross clear as Marian Kello sprinted out of his goal to collect the ball. The result was an exquisite piece of chest control and a lobbed finish into an empty net from the excellent Liam Craig.
Webster was eventually forced off but, had he been fit, it would surely have been Zaliukas withdrawn. The Lithuanian’s repertoire of fresh-air kicks and misplaced passes has been ongoing for weeks. A careless backward header almost presented Carl Finnigan with a second St Johnstone goal in the first half, and shortly after the interval an error in possession gifted Craig a chance for a 25-yard drive which thankfully angled away from target. The defence is malfunctioning with the captain in control. If anyone deserved the hook, it was him.
Sergio at least appears to recognise the defensive frailties. “I’m especially upset because we were very weak in our defensive line, we did not have calmness and confidence to play,” he said. “In fact, St Johnstone were only in our box two or three times in the whole game. They were in our box twice in the second half. We had a lot of chances to score, we didn’t score and we lost the game in a very stupid way. What upset me was the lack of quality and aggression in our defensive line. They put the ball in front and we didn’t attack the ball.”
Missing salaries are partly responsible for the lack of on-field cohesion, according to Sergio. “We are losing focus on our work, that is revealed in games,” he told the Hearts website. “We are thinking during the week about other kind of problems that everybody knows and we are losing our focus, our quality and our confidence.
“We are creating chances, that is good and we should put them in the net. We are creating and playing but, at the same time, we are doing stupid things. We are giving chances to our opponents without them doing too much to deserve it.” The most decisive moment of this match came on 63 minutes. With Hearts’ pressure relentless, St Johnstone substitute David McCracken pulled Sutton down inside the penalty area and referee Stevie O’Reilly pointed immediately to the spot. But Jamie Hamill passed up the chance to equalise as Peter Enckelman fisted away his penalty. Then St Johnstone earned a spot-kick of their own when Eggert Jonsson tripped Murray Davidson and Mackay stroked the ball high to Marian Kello’s left from 12 yards. At 2-0, it was virtually game over.
Mehdi Taouil scored his first Hearts goal four minutes from time and Elliott, on as substitute, might have rescued a point had Enckelman’s fingertips not denied him in stoppage-time. But a draw would have been unjust if the truth be told. The dying minutes saw Hearts grow increasingly exasperated and Stevenson at one point ran about 20 yards to square up to Adrian Mrowiec following some sloppy defending by the Pole.
In the directors’ box, Lomas was lapping it all up. He was serving his own one-game touchline ban after naming a team minus Cillian Sheridan and Francisco Sandaza, St Johnstone’s first-choice strike pairing, plus the influential midfielder Jody Morris through injury.
Compounding the misery, centre-back Frazer Wright limped off with a thigh problem after only 11 minutes. Yet the visitors were completely unperturbed and played intelligently on the break to record their second win in three games under Steve Lomas. Pertinently, the other match saw them draw 0-0 at Ibrox.
“We were very good in the first half, we were in control and we could have gone 2-0 up,” said Lomas. “You knew Hearts would come out and throw the kitchen sink at us after half-time and I think they had five strikers on the field at one stage. Our boys at the back were fantastic.
“The penalty was the turning point, it was an unbelievable save from the big man. We see that every day in training. He also had a good save right at the end but the penalty was a bit special. It was a key moment. I didn’t enjoy sitting in the stand at all but I celebrated the goals in my own quiet way.”
Lomas declared that the altercation between Stevenson and Mrowiec proved that Hearts, despite not being paid, still harbour passion for the cause. “I think it shows passion. They were trying desperately hard to get back into it. It’s too easy to say players don’t care. I haven’t met too many who don’t care. I think it’s a good sign for the Hearts manager.
“They want to do well, they wanted an equaliser and they were frustrated.”
Certainly no more frustrated than those in the Tynecastle stands, as Sergio could attest.