WATCHING Ian Black say farewell at the end of his three-year Hearts career was emotional enough for the club’s supporters. Rudi Skacel appearing to do likewise was doubly difficult to take. This was Black’s last match at Tynecastle following the announcement that his contract will not be extended.
Skacel’s deal expires in a matter of weeks, and seeing him pay his own tribute after the final home game of the campaign left everyone questioning whether his exit is also imminent.
No-one knows for certain. Perhaps not even Skacel. The Czech scored his 16th goal of the season yesterday as Hearts usurped St Johnstone to move fifth in the Scottish Premier League. They will qualify for Europe provided they remain there after the final round of matches this weekend. Black will not be around to take part in Europa League qualifiers, but supporters were dearly hoping Skacel would stay.
He still might. Chances are he was saying goodbye in case he doesn’t get the opportunity later. Hearts have not indicated whether he is to follow Black and Adrian Mrowiec out of the door as part of cost-cutting measures. “I don’t know if it’s the last game for them or not,” said Paulo Sergio, the Hearts manager. “That’s what it seems for Blackie right now but I don’t have any sign it’s the last one for Rudi. They are both fantastic players, important players, for us.”
Skacel did his own lap of honour and launched his shirt into the Gorgie Road Stand before the Hearts players collectively strolled round the pitch thanking supporters for their backing this season. Black then explained his own feelings. “I’m very happy with the win but it’s an emotional time,” he said. “I support the club and I’d like to thank all the fans and staff for sticking by me.” Where will he play next? “Who knows. I’ve not had any phone calls yet. If there’s anybody out there, hurry up.”
The diminutive midfielder commanded play again yesterday, outshining St Johnstone’s Murray Davidson and Jody Morris in central midfield. However, it was Skacel who opened the scoring in the first-half before Andy Webster secured victory after the interval. Hearts began the day sixth and trailing St Johnstone by a point. Now they are fifth and have European qualification in their own hands.
With Jamie MacDonald absent through illness, Mark Ridgers started for the first time in the Hearts goal and recorded a welcome clean sheet. He overcame some early nerves dealing with cross balls to ease into the match. A sweeping passing move by Hearts produced the game’s first goal on 21 minutes. Black fed Ryan McGowan on the right flank and the Australian’s low delivery was dispatched first-time beyond goalkeeper Alan Mannus from 12 yards by Skacel. It was the another goal at Tynecastle for that peerless left foot, although possibly his last at the famous stadium.
Mannus fisted Webster’s header away moments later, only for Skacel to lash the rebound high over the goal frame. At that point, Hearts were forcing their guests to retreat but the half-hour mark saw a change in the game’s context. Black cleared off his own goal-line after headers from Steven Anderson and Davidson, then St Johnstone’s Marcus Haber had an effort disallowed for offside. Hearts should have scored again before the interval but Marius Zaliukas’ free header from Black’s corner bounced off target.
Ridgers was called upon twice in succession near the end of the first period and coped well. He emerged to push Dave Mackay’s cross off the heads of visiting attackers, then reacted instantly to tip Callum Davidson’s 25-yard shot over the crossbar. Early in the second half, the young Highlander took two attempts to stop Morris’ powerful effort from 25 yards as St Johnstone continued pressing for parity.
Instead, they fell farther behind on 58 minutes. Webster forced himself in front of David McCracken to meet Danny Grainger’s free-kick delivery from the right flank, which he prodded into the net from close range. That virtually put the game beyond St Johnstone. Zaliukas’ header from a corner bounced off the post moments later before the visitors tried to freshen their attacking options by introducing Jamie Adams and Derek Riordan. The latter, as a former Hibs idol might expect, arrived on to the Tynecastle pitch to taunts about everything from his footballing allegiance to his physical appearance.
Nonetheless, Riordan still caused Hearts problems. Cillian Sheridan and Haber failed to convert two of his well-delivered corners in quick succession, and it required a brave block by McGowan to stifle one of Riordan’s shots inside the penalty area. The striker then sprinted on to Morris’ lofted through ball only to volley it high into the Roseburn Stand and prompt yet more derision. Riordan has little affection for Tynecastle and the ground’s regulars don’t intend that changing any time soon.
“It’s to our credit we didn’t allow them to play,” said Sergio. “I believe we had a very good first-half. We had the result at half-time but again we didn’t have efficiency. We were in control although the second half was not as clear as the first in terms of quality. There was lots of fight. After the second goal we should have been calmer and passed the ball more. St Johnstone didn’t quit, they still fought and they are a good team.”
Sergio allayed fears over Darren Barr, who left the field during the second half with a leg injury. “I think it’s nothing important. It was a knock on his leg and he had problems putting his foot on the floor. I think it’s okay.”
Steve Lomas, the St Johnstone manager, departed lamenting his team’s performance. It’s not often the Northern Irishman does that. “Goals change games,” he said. “The first one was disappointing, the second even more so. Webster scrambled it in from a yard. We had a few chances and if we’d taken one it might have been a different story. The second goal was a killer but Hearts probably deserved it overall. It was a massive game so it’s a huge disappointment.
“We came here to be positive with two up front and take the game to them. If we had to settle for a draw we would have done but that didn’t materialise. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t get into Europe. We had great optimism after the split although we’ve been hampered by injuries and suspensions. Our performance was disappointing. We’ve got one eye on the summer now because we’ve only got nine players signed up for next year. It’s down to me and the chairman because there’s going to be a massive turnover if we don’t get the players re-signed that we want to re-sign.”