ELEVENTH in the 12-team Scottish Premier League is not acceptable for any Hearts side, even one as young as this. Yet that is where the club finds itself this morning. If there is a positive to emerge from last night’s defeat in freezing Paisley, it lies in the difference in performance following a half-time switch to a 4-4-2 formation.
Ahead of his exit from the club this morning, manager John McGlynn had come under increasing criticism from some supporters with Hearts’ top-six chances virtually dead. He has made life awkward for himself by using a 4-3-3 system which all too often resembled 4-5-1. The players at his disposal seem better suited to 4-4-2, as they proved after the interval against St Mirren.
The home team were already 2-0 ahead in this League Cup final dress rehearsal when the change was made. Paul McGowan’s third-minute penalty and a Gareth Bale-esque 30-yarder from Graham Carey effectively ended the game as a contest before half-time. St Mirren leap-frogged Hearts in the league as a result. But for Dundee being detached from the rest of the table by some 15 points, the Edinburgh club would be in a relegation fight.
Nonetheless, they were a completely different proposition after the interval last night with John Sutton introduced as a substitute to partner Michael Ngoo in attack. They pressed St Mirren back, were denied a clear penalty when Sutton was pulled down, and attacked with far greater menace overall. With Motherwell due at Tynecastle on Saturday, fans will be keen to see how it pans out.
“The second half was better but that’s the least we expect. We got a bit of fight and determination in the second half. We changed it around and had a go,” said McGlynn last night. Asked if he would continue with Ngoo and Sutton together up front, he replied: “Possibly, yes. We’ll need to consider things and assess things and take it from there.”
One of McGlynn’s biggest problems had been plummeting morale within the dressing-room. The confidence of young players can be fragile at the best of times. Four defeats and a draw in the last five games is certain to have an effect on the youth academy graduates entrusted with the task of reviving Hearts’ league campaign.
“It doesn’t help when you’re losing games with younger players. Unfortunately, this is the situation we’re in,” continued McGlynn. “These are the players we’ve got and we have to deal with it. You tell me who else is there to play? All we’ve got is young boys. We’ve lost Ryan McGowan, Marius Zaliukas is out, Ryan Stevenson has been suspended, so this is what we’ve got. We lost a cheap first goal and we were up against it from then on. I don’t think it will have any bearing on the cup final, though.”
Danny Lennon, the St Mirren manager, may feel he now has a psychological advantage for the Hampden Park showpiece on March 17. His team were in complete control during the opening 45 minutes and displayed an attractive brand of crisp passing football which the young Hearts players toiled to cope with.
“I was delighted with the performance, particularly in the first half,” said Lennon. “A few of the lads came in and did very well and that’s what a squad is all about. Those lads have been patient. The timing of the two goals was perfect. The penalty set us on our way and some of the football we played was excellent and back to the identity of the stuff we played earlier in the season.
“If Graham’s goal had been scored by Gareth Bale it would probably have been spoken about. Goals like that deserve to be highlighted. It shows you the type of player and the quality we have.”
Hearts endured the worst possible start by conceding a penalty on five minutes when Darren Barr bundled Lee Mair to the ground as a corner arrived in the box. McGowan was clinical from the spot as he drove the ball low beyond custodian Jamie MacDonald.
Jamie Walker’s 20-yard drive was repelled by the St Mirren goalkeeper Craig Samson as Hearts attempted to reply quickly. The winger then set off on a meandering run on 25 minutes which took him past three opponents before he was crowded out approaching the penalty area.
St Mirren moved the ball crisply around midfield in the first half, often leaving Hearts chasing possession. The hosts also utilised the flanks well and delivered a few threatening crosses into the penalty area. They enjoyed progress down the left as Carey ensured Barr’s return to right-back was anything but pleasant. At left-back, Kevin McHattie endured a torrid time trying to subdue McGowan.
Sam Parkin glanced one of Carey’s many crosses wide on 42 minutes, and Carey produced a moment of individual brilliance seconds from the interval. He ambled forward with the ball and, more than 30 yards from goal, dispatched a vicious dipping volley which arced over MacDonald’s head and into the net. It was an effort worthy of Bale at his best and Carey knew he had given St Mirren an unassailable advantage.
McGlynn introduced Sutton and Dylan McGowan for the ineffective Arvydas Novikovas and Barr respectively, and switched to a 4-4-2 formation for the second half. Ten minutes after the restart, Hearts were denied what appeared a clear penalty when Lee Mair appeared to pull Sutton to the ground whilst challenging for McHattie’s high cross. Referee Kevin Clancy ignored the loud appeals from those in maroon and play continued.
Another effort from Walker stung Samson’s palms as the visitors’ pressure intensified. St Mirren were by now content to hit on the counter-attack. Mostly they managed to restrict Hearts to efforts from distance, with Ngoo and Walker both hitting shots wide of target. The winger also rolled a free-kick tamely into the goalkeeper’s arms.
For all Hearts’ attacking, it yielded nothing. The Jam Tarts slipped to second bottom in the SPL amid widespread wonderment about where their next victory might come from.