Failure to deal with set pieces costs Hearts against Saints

Davidson (No.8) scores the first of his two goals. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Murray Davidson (No.8) scores the first of his two goals. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The defeat at home to St Johnstone was a reminder that Hearts must continue working for the right to represent Scotland in European competition.

The defeat at home to St Johnstone was a reminder that Hearts must continue working for the right to represent Scotland in European competition.

Despite four successive wins without conceding a goal, the only bright note for those in maroon on Saturday was the warm spring sunshine. Quite simply, St Johnstone verged on the riotous at Tynecastle.

Murray Davidson and Liam Craig controlled a dominant display by the Perth club. Davidson scored two headers, both from Craig’s corners, and Craig, the former Hibs midfielder, struck the crossbar from 35 yards before Darnell Fisher’s late third goal.

For Perry Kitchen, it was an abhorrent home Hearts debut. The American international midfielder tried manfully to influence proceedings from a deep-lying role but was up against it from the outset. His new team were 2-0 down and chasing the game inside 21 minutes.

“Any time you give up two early set-piece goals it’s always tough. You dig yourself a hole. It just wasn’t good enough. I don’t know if I can pinpoint one certain thing,” he commented. “It was definitely disappointing. It wasn’t good enough from us.

“In saying that, we have to continue to look forward. We’re in the important part of the season with big matches coming up. We have to forget it quickly, learn from it and move on. I thought I played okay, I definitely need to be much better. Overall, it was a disappointing result. We’ve got to forget it quickly.”

Davidson met Craig’s first corner following Brian Easton’s flick on. He claimed his second from a similar delivery, thus exposing Hearts’ weakness without captain Alim Ozturk. The centre-back’s presence was sorely missed as he sat out with a slight knock and was replaced by Blazej Augustyn. Ozturk would have incurred a suspension for his club’s visit to Celtic in two weeks’ time if booked at the weekend.

Hearts looked fragile without their skipper and panicked every time a cross ball was delivered into their penalty box. Both Craig’s corners were poorly defended, albeit Davidson’s timing was very much precision. Fisher’s 90th-minute third – a confident finish from a tight angle – merely compounded a tortuous afternoon for Hearts.

St Johnstone’s performance was something to behold. Their aggression and desire were matched by clinical finishing in the final third. Davidson was untouchable in midfield and, in defence, Steven Anderson set a new club record with his 362nd appearance for Saints.

Kitchen summed up: “We expected that [desire]. We studied them all week and we knew what they were about. It was definitely a fast-paced game. We knew that’s what was to be expected.

“They had a good game plan and they executed it well. It was direct at times but it caused us problems. They capitalised on their chances so we’ve got to look at it and get better form it. Most of all, we have to move on and focus on our big games coming up.”

Hearts face trips to Celtic and Inverness and a home fixture with Aberdeen inside six days following the international break. Thanks to their endeavours at the weekend, St Johnstone retain very slender hope of qualifying for European competition. They are 13 points behind third-placed Hearts.

“We showed what a good side we are from the first whistle,” said manager Tommy Wright. “Not many teams could come here and dominate for 90 minutes like that. We could’ve scored more but I won’t complain with 3-0 and a clean sheet. Some of our football was excellent.

“I’ve been to Tynecastle a few times and saw teams get turned over. They can put you under pressure but we were on the front foot from the first whistle. They didn’t get a foothold in the game. The midfield, Davidson and Chris Millar, their energy levels, closing down and moving the ball well.”

Wright revealed he actually demanded more of a goalscoring return from Davidson. “I told him he owed me a goal or two,” he smiled. “He can score with headers from corners but he can get into the box from open play as well. Neil Alexander had an unbelievable save from Steven MacLean in the second half and Craig nearly took the bar off. Darnell’s goal capped off a really good performance.”

Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson bemoaned an off day for his team collectively and for too many individuals. “It was disappointing. We had been doing really well recently but we’re not good enough to win games when we have five or six players that don’t perform,” he admitted.

“We didn’t quite hit the mark. We’re still young, we’re still inexperienced and we were a bit naive at times. It was two set plays, two goals. We pride ourselves on our defensive record and we’ve not lost a lot recently. That’s the frustrating thing for me, that we never gave a lot of chances from open play. It was two balls into the box that we should’ve dealt with and we didn’t.”