Hearts’ miserable record at McDiarmid Park continues. St Johnstone demonstrated why they sit 12 points above the Tynecastle side in the Premiership with a narrow victory, leaving those in maroon still searching for their first league win in Perth since November 2010.
Chris Kane’s first-half strike separated these sides on an evening when genuine entertainment was in short supply if the truth be known. Once ahead, the home side didn’t really look like losing their advantage. It is that resilience which has seen them qualify for Europe again this year – the fifth time in six seasons.
Manager Tommy Wright is drawing admiring glances from chairmen in England and rightly so. Saints are now a dozen points ahead of Hearts in fourth place, having now claimed their record points tally in the top flight, and could have been 2-0 up by the interval. Kane’s instinctive finish for the goal preceded another effort by the same player which careered off the crossbar. Ultimately, it mattered little in respect of the end result. Hearts have now won only two of their past 15 matches in all competitions and head to Celtic Park this weekend looking to avoid ending the campaign with four straight defeats.
Perthshire sunshine bathed the stadium before kick-off and, with summer in the air, it was the perfect evening for football. St Johnstone’s pitch looked resplendent and probably deserved a greater occasion than this meaningless end-of-season affair.
Saints secured fourth place and a Europa League place last weekend, whilst Hearts know another summer rebuild is on the horizon. The visitors took to the field playing to retain fifth place in the Premiership and were led out by midfielder Don Cowie, captain on his 50th competitive appearance.
Replacing the suspended Prince Buaben in the centre of Hearts’ three-man defence was Alex Tziolis. The Greek is predominantly a midfield player but his composure on the ball was something head coach Ian Cathro wanted to utilise. However, the obvious weakness in a back three of Tziolis, Aaron Hughes and Krystian Nowak was pace.
St Johnstone used Kane and Craig Thomson down their right flank to exploit this. Both players made driving runs deep into visiting territory with the ball in the opening 15 minutes, with only their final ball letting them down. Hearts had their moments early on, too, with Cowie and Esmael Goncalves roaming around freely in space behind central striker Bjorn Johnsen.
It was indeed pace and movement which helped St Johnstone fashion the opening goal on 26 minutes. This time it was manufactured down the left. Danny Swanson’s clever through ball found Kane darting into space in the penalty area. The forward’s first-time right-footed flick bounced past the emerging Viktor Noring and rolled into the empty net.
The home side’s guile was something Hearts lacked. For all their neat passing interchanges going forward, they found it difficult to break open the well-drilled St Johnstone defence. Johnsen decided to try the direct route seven minutes from the interval. From 25 yards, he dispatched a dipping strike which was pushed for a corner by Saints goalkeeper Alan Mannus.
Only the crossbar prevented St Johnstone reaching half-time with a 2-0 advantage. Kane’s vicious attempt from around 25 yards thundered back off the goal frame with Noring beaten. Graham Cummins’ follow-up effort rolled wide. Cathro replaced Johnsen with Rory Currie at the start of the second period in the hope of stretching the opposition defence more. Those in blue remained steadfastly in their recognised 4-4-2 formation which has served them so well for so long. Kane flicked Thomson’s low cross towards goal ten minutes after the restart but Noring collected comfortably.
Arnaud Djoum came closest for Hearts just a moment later. He tried a low attempt from the edge of the opposition penalty area which spun up off Joe Shaughnessy’s foot. The ball arced towards the top corner of the net but Mannus was alive enough to push it over the crossbar for a corner.
Another alteration for the visitors saw Jamie Walker take over from Malaury Martin. Instantly, the tempo of Hearts’ play increased. Walker took to the air to volley Liam Smith’s cross from the right although the ball landed wide of target. The winger then orchestrated another attack which ended with Mannus pushing Smith’s driven shot wide low at his left side. That resulted in Hearts’ tenth corner of the night. Like the other nine, they failed to create an opening and must devise a way to use set-plays better. St Johnstone hadn’t managed a single corner at that point but remained 1-0 ahead and not in any obvious danger of being pegged back.
They substituted Swanson with 19 minutes remaining in what was his final appearance for the Perth club. He is suspended for Sunday’s season-ending league game with Rangers and will depart for Hibs this summer. Creating the decisive goal against former club Hearts was a pleasing way for the Edinburgh-born player to leave McDiarmid Park.
Walker’s snapshot was held by Mannus as the final ten minutes approached. An array of maroon shirts were camped in the St Johnstone half of the field lacking the required panache to open their rigid defence. Play broke to the opposite end briefly and substitute Liam Craig might have secured the result with a second goal. He hit the net but was judged offside converting a rebound after Noring parried Kane’s shot.
St Johnstone (4-4-2): Mannus; Foster, Shaughnessy, Scobbie, Easton; Thomson (Alston 68), Wotherspoon, Millar (Craig 80), Swanson (Coulson 71); Kane, Cummins. Unused subs: Clark, Anderson, Gilchrist, MacLean.
Hearts (3-4-2-1): Noring; Nowak, Tziolis, Hughes; Smith, Martin (Walker 60), Djoum, Nicholson (Choulay 77); Cowie, Goncalves; Johnsen (Currie 46). Unused subs: Hamilton, Avlonitis, Brandon, Kitchen.
Referee: D Robertson