HEARTS’ best available team is taking shape ahead of the Edinburgh derby and the Scottish Communities League Cup final. Last night brought a first win in seven matches, an encouraging performance against St Johnstone and a clean sheet. More importantly, there was evidence of genuine attacking menace rarely seen at Tynecastle this season.
The spine of the team named by interim manager Gary Locke was relatively experienced given the resources available. Expect most of those involved to feature at Easter Road on Sunday and at Hampden Park in the aforementioned cup final. Michael Ngoo and John Sutton led the forward line last night in a 4-4-2 formation and looked a devastating combination, acknowledged by the visiting manager Steve Lomas afterwards. “The two up front were excellent for Hearts and we just couldn’t cope,” he lamented.
St Johnstone have occupied a top-six place for most of the campaign but were notably ordinary last night. To an extent, they were made to look so. Ryan Stevenson and Sutton scored the goals to end a dispiriting run of defeats for Hearts and move the club up a place to tenth in the SPL. The catalysts for the win were unquestionably the two forwards, though.
Locke changed formation immediately following manager John McGlynn’s sacking and his players look much more effective in a 4-4-2.
“We got everything in abundance from them,” said Locke. “They showed everything required to get ourselves out of this position we’re in. They showed endeavour, work rate and were first to every ball. I thought we might have scored one or two more goals. The strikers did great but it wasn’t just the two of them. Everyone who played contributed. We’re just delighted to get a victory after being on such a bad run.”
Reports of a possible lurch into administration were staunchly denied by Hearts before kick-off. The club’s financial future remains open to question but Locke, aided by fellow interim manager Darren Murray, is focused purely on football.
“I heard the rumours. I think it’s just a bit of scare-mongering,” he continued. “I don’t know a lot about it because it’s the board of directors who deal with that side of things. I’m just here to concentrate on the football side of things. The players aren’t fussed about it. I think, over the years, the players are used to rumours and stuff in the media. Our sole focus was to get a victory and we’ve done that.
“It’s business as usual. We were on a bad run, five losses in a row isn’t good enough for a club of this stature. The players responded in the right manner but it’s only one game and the players have to take this on to the next few league matches now. Hopefully, if we play like that and put the same effort and commitment in, we’ll pick up points.”
Locke may not be in charge for too much longer as Hearts’ search for a permanent manager continues. “I’m not thinking about that,” he said. “We were in charge for Saturday and we were in charge for this one. I don’t know what’s going to happen between now and the derby. I’m not really overly concerned about that. I was just delighted to get a win. I’d like to dedicate it to John McGlynn and all the supporters who came along.”
It was indeed a hardy 10,080 who braved the chill at Tynecastle on a night when some preferred to watch Manchester United and Real Madrid from their own sofa.
Jamie MacDonald produced a save to deny Rowan Vine and Sutton headed Arvydas Novikovas’ cross over the St Johnstone crossbar during what was an open and lively start. Sutton had the ball in the net on 12 minutes but was judged offside from Darren Barr’s low cross ball. MacDonald then parried an effort from Murray Davidson, and Alan Mannus, the St Johnstone goalkeeper, used his upper body to block Sutton’s goalbound flick after a clever ball from Mehdi Taouil.
Play was swinging from end to end but not until the 32nd minute did a goal arrive – and an impressive one at that. Taouil’s quick free-kick 30 yards from his own goal made its way through a succession of passes involving Sutton, Ngoo, Stevenson and Novikovas. The Lithuanian’s through pass to the on-running Ngoo was blocked by Mannus, however Stevenson confidently placed the loose ball into the unguarded net. Moving ahead injected Hearts with much-needed confidence. Ngoo had two efforts at goal in quick succession before Steven MacLean, a former Riccarton trialist, also had a goal disallowed for offside. Ngoo then fired a venomous effort just wide of Mannus’ right post and continued causing havoc through to the interval.
Two minutes from half-time he galloped on to another slide pass by Novikovas, outpaced David McCracken and forced his way past Mannus. St Johnstone were rescued by Callum Davidson’s last-ditch tackle as the striker prepared to finish from close range.
The second period saw Hearts’ concerted pressure continue. Camped inside the opposition half, they could not fashion a clear enough opening to double their advantage. Andy Webster cleared a clever header by the St Johnstone substitute Gregory Tade off his own goal line on 74 minutes as St Johnstone mounted a rare counter-attack. The Tynecastle natives were growing slightly restless at that stage, but in the 83rd minute Hearts secured victory with much of the credit due to Ngoo. The Englishman’s sheer brute strength saw him win a wrestle with substitute Steven Anderson on the right before delivering a low ball to the back post. Sutton was in place to tap in his second goal in as many games which released a huge cloud of tension from within Tynecastle.
“We were second best all over the park,” admitted Lomas. “It’s probably the first time we didn’t win any battles, so it’s a disappointing night. We let ourselves and our fans down. Our boys were under no illusions about what was going to happen here. We saw the second half against Motherwell, when Hearts went direct to Ngoo and Sutton. But it wasn’t just them, it was all over the park. If you don’t win your individual battles you’re going to struggle and we didn’t win our battles.
“This is up there with the most disappointing performances since I’ve come to St Johnstone.”