STEVEN PRESSLEY was a notable absentee in this match, but the certitude and desire which typifies his approach to football was still evident within the Hearts players. The mind can only wonder at what they might have achieved with their captain present and correct in Paisley.
The centre-back was omitted from the squad despite being fully fit and available for selection, his absence down to the suspension laid down on him by the powers that be for speaking out against management techniques. Pressley’s Hearts career was drawing to a saddening close.
Having sacrificed Pressley, Hearts suffered retribution of sorts as St Mirren twice punctured a fragile central defence in a three-minute period in the first half.
Those in the away end at Love Street were distinctly subdued while goals by two of Hearts’ most castigated Lithuanians, Saulius Mikoliunas and Marius Zaliukas, ultimately proved vital.
Hearts had the ball in the back of the net after a mere 19 seconds of the match, Edgaras Jankauskas’ ball in from the left flank was converted by Mikoliunas. The winger looked suspiciously offside, but that could not detract from a well-taken stabbing of the ball past the advancing Tony Bullock.
St Mirren’s response saw Simon Lappin shoot over when he found himself in plenty of space inside Craig Gordon’s penalty area, then Stewart Kean hit a potent shot only for Gordon to brilliantly divert it away.
Gus MacPherson was becoming slightly anxious in the home dugout, but his players’ attempts to restore parity bore justice after 19 minutes when Kean found the net. Andy Millen’s free-kick from the left glanced the head of Kirk Broadfoot and the ball bounced loose at the feet of John Sutton before Kean drove it high into the net.
Two minutes later, the striker doubled the damage after Gary Brady had meandered through the Hearts rearguard to slip him the ball for a composed finish.
With Pressley absent, his organisational qualities were being missed in the most excruciating way, and Christophe Berra, who protested vociferously to referee Charlie Richmond for a foul in the build-up to Kean’s second goal, then found himself strangely replaced by Zaliukas despite the fact that it was Ibrahim Tall who looked more culpable in relation to both goals.
By the break, Valdas Ivanauskas’ side were looking slightly ragged. Inspiration arrived shortly after the restart with Zaliukas’ first goal for the club. Paul Hartley, captain in Pressley’s absence, responded to taunts from the home support by curling a free-kick for the unmarked Lithuanian to head the equaliser. Celebrating in typical cheeky-chappie fashion, Hartley danced down the touchline, right in front of St Mirren’s fans.
The hostility was having an invigorating effect on Hearts as a team. As the second half wore on the visitors’ attitude and application became evermore notable, although it has to be said that MacPherson’s side matched them stride for stride.
The simmering disdain on the pitch erupted on 75 minutes when Hartley became the seventh Hearts player this season to be red carded. The midfielder was dismissed for a second bookable offence – both fouls on Murray.
The reduction to ten men had no blunting effect on the desire of Hearts. They pushed forward during the latter stages and may have had a penalty when Velicka tumbled in the home penalty area under a Murray tackle. Richmond waved away strong claims, but seconds later Bruno Aguiar was booked and a free-kick given for a challenge on Lappin at the opposite end.