A sixth defeat in seven games has left Hearts five points adrift of St Johnstone in the battle for fourth place and their supporters in a state of anger and despondency.
A season in which they once – not so long ago – had genuine aspirations of prospering is now unravelling at an alarming rate. The Tynecastle side, defeated by a second-half Joe Shaughnessy header in Perth on a night when they had substitute Sam Nicholson sent off for allegedly spitting at the linesman late on, have now scored in only one of their last six matches.
With confidence and spirit having seemingly been sapped from them by a chastening run of results, Ian Cathro’s team rarely threatened to find the net against a Saints side who, without excelling, were more purposeful and deserving of victory. Tommy Wright’s side, on one of the most modest budgets in the league, are now in command of the race for fourth place and just six points behind third-place Rangers in the battle for the Europa League places.
For Hearts, although fourth is still mathematically attainable, the objective for the remainder of the campaign appears to be damage limitation, with their supporters now becoming more disenchanted with every passing setback. The Jam Tarts arrived in Perth in search of their first away win over St Johnstone in more than five years, having failed to taste victory at McDiarmid Park since Jamie Hamill and Marius Zaliukas scored in a 2-1 triumph en route to Scottish Cup glory in 2012.
Cathro surprisingly opted to keep faith with the same XI that started the 5-0 defeat against Celtic on Sunday. St Johnstone were without former Hearts midfielder Danny Swanson and Richard Foster following their bust-up in Saturday’s defeat by Hamilton Accies.
Hearts started confidently, knocking the ball about well and generally keeping possession without ever really looking like threatening their hosts. It was notable that Greek midfielder Alex Tziolis was regularly dropping into defence in the early exchanges, allowing the team to play a 3-4-3 formation.
The Edinburgh side got their first sight of goal in the 12th minute when Esmael Goncalves was tripped by Liam Craig after Bjorn Johnsen backheeled a Lennard Sowah pass into his path just outside the box, but Jamie Walker’s free-kick went straight into the defensive wall.
That was as close as Hearts would get to threatening Alan Mannus’s goal before the break.
St Johnstone’s first opening came in the 17th minute but Graham Cummins sliced a half volley harmlessly over after the ball broke to him on edge of the box.
Six minutes later, Saints midfielder Blair Alston fired an angled shot just over the top from inside the box after playing a one-two down the right with Clive Smith. With clear chances having been non-existent in the opening half hour, the hosts went on to have a flurry of close calls within the space of four minutes. First, Paul Paton saw a goalbound strike from the edge of the box brilliantly tipped round the post by the full-stretch Jack Hamilton.
Then, a minute later, Brian Easton smacked a shot against the underside of the bar after being teed up by Steven MacLean, and Alston was denied by a ruck of bodies as he tried to smash in the rebound. Cummins then saw a glancing header from an inswinging Craig free-kick superbly tipped over by Hamilton as the Hearts goal lived a charmed life.
Four minutes before the interval, David Wotherspoon headed a Brian Easton free-kick straight at Hamilton, and then Tziolis made a vital interception at the near post to knock MacLean’s driven cross behind for a corner.
Saints, although far from dominant, were entitled to feel a sense of grievance at not being ahead at the break considering the visitors had failed to threaten their goal. St Johnstone signalled their intent within seconds of the restart when Craig lashed a powerful low shot just wide of the left-hand post from 15 yards out.
At the other end, Walker shot high and wide from 30 yards in the 53rd minute but, as the match wore on, Saints were looking increasingly likely to edge in front. Hearts made a change on the hour, with midfielder Prince Buaben replacing Avlonitis at centre-back.
Saints went close three minutes later when Easton powered his way forward and shot over from 25 yards.
Captain Perry Kitchen then shot high and wide from outside the box as Hearts struggled to create anything of note in front of Mannus’ goal. After Sowah was forced off by injury to be replaced by Liam Smith, Hearts found themselves operating with right-back Andraz Struna at left-back and midfielder Buaben at centre-back. It came as little surprise when they eventually fell behind in the 73rd minute as Shaughnessy rose to power in a header from a Craig corner. The visitors’ hopes of finding an equaliser were effectively dashed when substitute Nicholson was shown a straight red card after the linesman informed referee Nick Walsh of his alleged misdemeanour.
Hearts had a couple of flurries forward in the closing stages, with Goncalves twice curling efforts beyond the far post after getting into dangerous positions in the box, but they were unable to force an equaliser.