THE new season began with defeat for Hearts as Stevie May inspired St Johnstone to an impressive opening win in the Scottish Premiership. Although the margin of victory was narrow, this encounter at McDiarmid Park was largely controlled by the home side as they brought their excellent European form into the domestic arena.
May caused relentless problems for a young Hearts defence and struck the game’s only goal on 26 minutes with a fine angled shot low into the corner of the net. With Hearts bearing the brunt of administration, a 15-point deduction and a transfer embargo, manager Gary Locke relied on youngsters who fought bravely for the cause but ultimately lacked the attacking craft to carve open the opposition.
In front of around 3500 vociferous travelling fans, Hearts began their attempt to overhaul their points deficit with the news that Kevin McHattie had been passed fit. Starting so far adrift at the bottom of the new top flight might have been daunting but they lacked nothing in terms of aggression during the early stages and were superbly backed by their fans.
St Johnstone returned from another fine European win over FC Minsk early on Friday morning and manager Tommy Wright rejigged his team hoping to avert fatigue. It worked well early on as the home side’s attacks saw a few testing crosses land in the Hearts penalty area. They were initially well defended by Danny Wilson and Brad McKay in particular.
After Ryan Stevenson had tested Allan Mannus with an early effort on target, he appealed for a penalty on 23 minutes after falling in a tackle from Steven Anderson. Referee Steven MacLean ignored the pleas and, moments later, St Johnstone moved ahead.
McKay ceded possession to another Steven MacLean, the St Johnstone forward, and he fed May. After cutting inside from the left, the ball was arced low beyond Jamie MacDonald into the far corner for a precise finish. Despite no-one touching the ball as it flew across goal, an offside flag was raised and the referee required to consult his assistant, Graham McNeillie, before awarding the goal. The argument will be whether any St Johnstone players in the penalty box were distracting MacDonald.
The score would have been 2-0 moments from the interval but for the Hearts goalkeeper. He produced a superb point-blank save to deny Anderson from David Wotherspoon’s corner and keep his team in the game. The same player headed Tam Scobbie’s free-kick narrowly over the crossbar before the half-time whistle sounded.
St Johnstone claimed May’s cross early in the second half struck McHattie’s arm as the defender slipped inside the penalty area, but play was allowed to continue. Chris Millar lofted a through pass to May, who beat the offside trap before his delivery was scrambled clear. MacDonald then saved a long-range free-kick and tipped MacLean’s header wide as Hearts found their goal under siege once more.
They recovered after introducing Jason Holt in midfield and began probing the opposition defence. Ryan Stevenson came to life and the final stages saw Mannus, the St Johnstone goalkeeper, under pressure for the first time in the afternoon.
However he, and his defence, held firm to keep a clean sheet and help put three welcome points on the board. Hearts finished with only one shot on target – the attempt by Stevenson in the opening minutes.
St Johnstone (4-4-2): Mannus; Mackay, G Miller, Anderson, Scobbie; C Millar, Cregg (Davidson 64), McDonald, Wotherspoon; May (Hasselbaink 73), MacLean (Fallon 82). Subs: Banks, Edwards, Caddis, Easton.
Hearts (4-3-1-2): MacDonald; McGowan, McKay, Wilson, McHattie; Tapping (B King 69), Hamill, Robinson (Holt 58); Walker (Smith 76); Paterson, Stevenson. Subs: Ridgers, A King, Oliver, McGhee.
Referee: Steven MacLean.