THIS was perhaps what many expected from Hearts at the start of a season in which they are severely handicapped. If there is such a thing as a comfortable 1-0 win, St Johnstone got it yesterday. They controlled the majority of the game and looked an accomplished side, as their European adventures have already proved.
In Stevie May they have a striker who has learned his trade at lower levels and scored for fun during loans spells at Alloa and Hamilton. Aged 20, he now looks ready for top level football. Goal aside, his movement, link-up play and awareness indicate a player who may well light up the new Scottish Premiership.
Ultimately, he was the difference. Hearts had no equivalent after a summer of administration, cost-cutting and threats to their very existence. They started minus 15 points and with an inexperienced team. For much of the afternoon, they never looked like reducing that gap despite the backing of around 3500 travelling fans for their first competitive match since entering administration.
The absence of attacking guile was not lost on manager Gary Locke, who began with Ryan Stevenson and Callum Paterson in attack. He can only lament the absence of a natural and experienced centre forward from his squad. That missing focal point was emphasised yesterday by the constant hustling and bustling of May at the opposite end.
“It was frustrating,” said Locke. “We’re certainly going to have to improve in the final third. I think we hummed and hawed without creating a lot of chances. We aren’t going to stand here and make excuses, we have to do better when we do create openings in the final third. In the first half, Jamie Walker came inside and took an extra couple of touches. He has to come inside and have a shot. If you don’t shoot, you’re never going to score. We have to brush up on that. It’s a long season and we battled well enough against a really good St Johnstone side who are high on confidence at the minute. But we’re going to have to do better in terms of our delivery from set plays and our final ball in the final third.”
Tommy Wright, the St Johnstone manager, eulogised May’s performance after his second goal of the season. His first secured a 1-0 Europa League qualifying win away to Rosenborg last month.
“We actually toyed with the idea of playing him left of the three but I think he’s better through the middle,” said Wright. “He loves getting in those positions between full-backs and centre-backs and cutting in. He needs the ball for himself because he’ll just shoot from anywhere.”
May’s instinctive finish produced a controversial winner on 26 minutes yesterday. He received the ball from strike partner Steven MacLean and cut inside from the left to shoot with his right foot. As the ball curved across Jamie MacDonald and into the bottom corner of the net, assistant referee Graham McNeillie raised his flag for offside with David Wotherspoon the most likely culprit.
Referee Steven MacLean - not to be confused with the St Johnstone forward - consulted McNeillie before awarding the goal. Cue protests from Hearts.
“I saw the assistant with his flag up so I thought somebody was offside,” said Locke. “Speaking to Jamie MacDonald, he felt a couple of St Johnstone players got in his eye line and put him off. I’m obviously going to say I thought it was offside but I spoke to Stevie and he felt he got the decision right. I’m not going to complain.”
The Hearts captain, Danny Wilson, was booked for protesting in the aftermath of the goal. “The referee said that, although the player was offside, he didn’t think he was interfering with play. I can’t really say much about it. That was his take on it. I don’t understand why the assistant has put his flag up if that’s the case. I don’t really understand these things. It’s a bit of a grey area with the rules.
“St Johnstone showed they’ve played a few more competitive games than us but it’s only the first game. There are 37 more to go.”
The defeat would have been heavier but for MacDonald’s superb save from Steven Anderson’s netbound header late in the first half. One positive for Hearts was their more open play during the closing stages. Locke introduced substitutes Jason Holt, Billy King and, latterly, David Smith, and all three entered the fray eager to press forward. For the first time in the game, Hearts looked like they might prise an equaliser.
Those three may have played their way into Locke’s thoughts for this weekend’s Edinburgh derby. “We’d like to start eating into that [15-point gap] as quick as possible,” he said. “We won’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got another cracking game next week and we need to try and pick up points in that.”
Despite the defeat, the visiting players departed to rapturous applause from their fans at McDiarmid Park. “The fans are worth everything to us,” said Locke.
“I feel it’s really important in the warm-up and after the game that the players acknowledge them because, if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here. If we get that backing all season, I’m hoping the players can respond in the right way and give the fans the results they deserve. They are going to have a huge part to play this year.”