POSITIVES and negatives emerged from this match for Hearts. Jason Holt was one of the former, Marius Zaliukas definitely the latter. It was a day of mixed emotions in Perth, the excitement of youth academy graduates impressing clouded by a familiar sinner and a frustrating end result.
St Johnstone came from a goal down to take all three points in the race for Europe, leaving Hearts sixth in the SPL. Yet the hosts barely left their own half of the field during the second 45 minutes as the visitors controlled the game. That made the final score all the more difficult to bear for the 880 Hearts fans who travelled up from Edinburgh.
Holt, a precocious 19-year-old midfielder, scored just 29 minutes into his first senior start with an instinctive first-time finish. As he set off in a palpable fit of delight, the notion that someone special had arrived was inescapable. He delivered a confident and industrious performance before being replaced in the second half and can only improve with age and experience.
Murray Davidson equalised for St Johnstone shortly after Holt’s opening goal, a moment when the Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald sustained a hip injury trying to reach the midfielder’s low shot. He had to be replaced at the interval as another Riccarton graduate, 21-year-old Mark Ridgers, made his debut. In hindsight, it would have been better for Hearts to replace Zaliukas at the same time.
If anyone looked like winning this match it was the visitors due to their commanding display after the break. But, on 75 minutes, the Lithuanian tripped Francisco Sandaza after the Spaniard flicked a bouncing ball over Danny Grainger’s head. Sandaza scored the resultant penalty and Zaliukas trudged off with his head inside his jersey at full-time as the latest in a series of errors again proved costly.
“The penalty, in my opinion, is a clear foul,” admitted Paulo Sergio, the Hearts manager. “I believe there is a foul during the build-up when Grainger tried to head the ball and Sandaza put his foot in his face. And, at the first goal, their player started off in an offside position. These are two mistakes which hit us badly.
“All through the second half we played in their midfield and we were comfortable. We were looking to win the game. At the end, to leave with no points is very frustrating. We have Kilmarnock who are five points behind us. There is so much still to play for. We must work and life is not easy but I believe we are going to be there (in the top six). We can be fighting for a better position.
“It’s very disappointing, we didn’t deserve this result at all.”
Sergio’s pre-match preparations weren’t helped when Craig Beattie failed a fitness test due to a heel problem. Rudi Skacel, Jamie Hamill and Ian Black were relegated to the substitutes’ bench following the midweek cup win in Paisley. “We need to recover some players with different problems,” explained Sergio. “Some have hip problems, cartilage, hernia. We have to give the younger ones a chance and show we believe they can be in the first team in the future. They all played well, it wasn’t just Holt. Gary Glen worked a lot for the team and he had his chances. It was a pity he didn’t score because we should have got a point. I believe in the young players.
“When we lost the first goal, when MacDonald went down, there was something in his hip. Beattie has a heel problem. He can’t put his foot on the floor. We will see how long he is out for.”
St Johnstone were more adept at linking midfield to attack in the first half, with Jody Morris and Davidson dominant in the central area. But Hearts carried threat down both flanks and it was from the right that they constructed the opening goal. The impressive Scott Robinson, reinstated to the team, fed Ryan McGowan for a knee-height cross which Holt swivelled to fire into the net via the fingertips of goalkeeper Alan Mannus from around eight yards. It was a finish which belied the scorer’s tender years.
Hearts’ advantage lasted only six minutes until Davidson converted Dave Mackay’s cross on one of his trademark late runs into the opposition box. However, Hearts were rightly aggrieved that Robinson was denied a foul during the build up having had his shirt clearly pulled by Sandaza. That seemed a more obvious issue than Sergio’s claim for offside.
MacDonald looked in discomfort as he left the field at the interval. He failed to reappear and Ridgers took over for his Hearts debut. The youngster watched Cillian Sheridan volley wide and then enjoyed a long period of inactivity as the visitors camped themselves in St Johnstone’s half. They toiled to fashion any clear chances, though. In the 74th minute, Robinson dispatched a powerful shot from 20 yards which Mannus did well to hold.
Then came the obligatory Zaliukas moment of madness. The Tynecastle captain wasn’t content with conceding a penalty against St Mirren on Wednesday and decided to repeat the feat to gift St Johnstone a winning goal. He had already played an erratic backpass to MacDonald in the first half which led to a St Johnstone corner. With the game entering its critical final stage, Sandaza evaded Grainger out wide and entered the box before skipping past Zaliukas. The centre-back took him down and Sandaza, after some pushing and shoving involving several players from both sides, planted the penalty high beyond Ridgers.
Hearts mounted a late surge seeking an equaliser and Glen managed to hit a post from Andy Driver’s cross. The young forward then fastened on to a long clearance only to prod his finish past Mannus and narrowly wide with the St Johnstone defence posted missing. Glen actually finished the match being partnered by Zaliukas in attack.
To be blunt, Hearts were better off with the Lithuanian up there out of the way.