A HARSH lesson for Gary Locke to learn in his first game as Hearts manager. Appointed on a permanent basis just 24 hours before the Scottish Communities League Cup final, his first task was to endure the agony of defeat to St Mirren at Hampden Park. Their clinical finishing, combined with Hearts’ misfortune in front of goal, secured the Paisley club a first ever League Cup, leaving Locke distraught.
The 37-year-old looked ashen-faced entering the auditorium deep in the bowels of Hampden long after the final whistle. As apprenticeships go, this is as tough as it gets. He sat politely and fielded questions from the media. Clearly, he would have preferred to be anywhere but in that seat at that moment.
Hearts ultimately suffered for not converting scoring chances into goals during the first half. They struck first through Ryan Stevenson and dominated thereafter until Esmael Goncalves equalised against the run of play on 37 minutes. St Mirren’s confidence soared and they moved ahead 60 seconds after the interval through Steven Thompson. And after Conor Newton increased their advantage, it proved a bridge too far for Hearts despite Stevenson reducing the deficit with his second goal of the match.
It was St Mirren who collected the famous tri-handled trophy and headed off back to Paisley with their first piece of silverware in over a quarter of a century. “It’s a sore one. Myself and the players and staff are really hurting at the minute,” admitted Locke. “If we could’ve got a second goal to go 2-0 up, we probably would’ve gone on to win it. We had a few chances in the game, hit the woodwork two or three times. It just wasn’t meant to be.
“Full credit to the players, we didn’t give up. That’s the type of commitment and desire that’s required at the football club. We can’t fault the players in terms of effort. I was disappointed with the first ten minutes of the second half because we didn’t get going at all and that’s cost us.”
By then, Hearts could have been 2-0 or even 3-0 ahead. Stevenson collected a loose ball 18 yards out following a tackle by St Mirren captain Jim Goodwin. The midfielder shimmied to create space for a deflected finish low into Craig Samson’s right corner and set off to celebrate. John Sutton’s back-post header struck the post from Jamie Walker’s 21st-minute cross with Hearts looking composed and confident going forward. St Mirren’s attacking forays were rare and it was with notable ease that Jamie MacDonald collected Goncalves’ 25th-minute attempt from distance.
Only the instinctive reactions of Samson prevented Kevin McHattie’s swirling free-kick landing in the St Mirren net as the ball eluded everyone inside the penalty area. Mehdi Taouil then fashioned space for himself as he jinked clear of three defenders, however the Moroccan’s left-footed shot rolled wide.
The equaliser arrived against the run of play eight minutes from the interval. Thompson’s intelligent through ball found Gary Teale onside in behind the Hearts defence. He squared to Goncalves to finish into an empty net. Instantly, St Mirren’s confidence grew and they finished the first half strongly.
Still fired up at the start of the second half, they scored again within a minute as Paul Dummett’s low cross was instinctively dispatched high into the Hearts net by Thompson’s left foot. It was clinical and ruthless – exactly the kind of finishing that had largely eluded those in maroon. “There are always defining moments in games,” mulled Locke afterwards. “If Sutty scored with his header in the first half, it probably would’ve been a different outcome. We needed the second goal just to give us a wee bit of a cushion. Not getting that always gave St Mirren a chance of getting back into the game.”
The cup was secured on 65 minutes as St Mirren produced a beautifully-worked third goal. Newton charged forward from his central midfield berth and exchanged passes with Goncalves 20 yards from goal. The return ball put him in behind the Hearts back line for a precise finish far out of MacDonald’s reach. In the technical area, the St Mirren manager Danny Lennon was a picture of euphoria, sensing he and his players were on the cusp of history.
Hearts attempted to rally and almost pulled off a remarkable comeback. Locke introduced substitutes Arvydas Novikovas, Jason Holt and Dale Carrick and Stevenson struck the crossbar from Wilson’s headed knockdown. Then, taking Michael Ngoo’s pass on the left of the penalty box, the midfielder strode forward to stroke the ball home with his left foot, bringing the deficit back to 3-2 with six minutes remaining.
It was Stevenson again who almost equalised in the dying embers, first denied by Samson’s block and then hitting the post with the rebound. As Locke said, it simply wasn’t to be.
“We put a lot of balls into the box,” he said. “Ryan Stevenson showed that bit of composure to score the two goals. When it gets late in the game you’re just putting balls into the box and hoping it drops to one of our boys but it didn’t. We didn’t take our chances on the day and we’re sitting here as losers.”
Lennon echoed Locke’s sentiments that St Mirren could have been behind at the interval. He could not, however, disguise his delight at securing a trophy in his third season as manager of the club. “It’s absolutely fantastic. I’ve always had a great deal of belief in this side,” he said. “I must give them a lot of credit for what they did in the first half. We let the occasion get to us and were fortunate to get to the break at 1-1.
“The players got themselves into a comfortable lead after the break and I must say that they brought it in – it was the people’s final. It will live long in the memory. I’m delighted we’ve done it for Paisley.”
Over 25,000 Hearts fans had made the journey to Hampden looking to see if last year’s Scottish Cup romp against Hibs could be followed with League Cup success. Locke thanked those present for their efforts. “I’d like to give a special mention to the supporters,” he said. “The way they’ve rallied round the club and turned out in their thousands at Hampden, I’m really disappointed for them all. I’d have liked nothing more than to give them a trophy.
“We all have to stick together. The players have given everything, the fans gave us everything, and that’s the only way the club is going to move forward.”