Hearts surge further ahead in European quest with Josh Ginnelly and Barrie McKay a bigger tale than John Souttar
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Josh Ginnelly’s two goals against St Johnstone combined with Motherwell’s defeat at Ross County ensured an excellent evening all round for Edinburgh’s maroon half.
Third-placed Hearts moved eight points clear of their North Lanarkshire rivals in fourth, Barrie McKay’s exquisite creative ability and Ginnelly’s finishing the major highlights as the cinch Premiership restarted in Gorgie.
Souttar’s pre-contract deal with Rangers still attracted plenty attention. That was inevitable. Ginnelly’s particular penchant for this fixture proved more of an influence as the forward claimed his second and third goals of the campaign. All three have come against St Johnstone.
McKay’s attacking instincts were another central feature as he created both goals and might have etched his own name on the scoresheet. Behind them, Souttar looked notably in control of proceedings despite an frosty reception.
An early chorus of “Souttar, Souttar, get to f***” clarified how many fans felt about the defender’s decision to spend his future at Ibrox. His early touches were also jeered although applause from some supporters could also be heard amongst the boos.
The player looked unperturbed by the attention. Strong character has seen him recover and fight back from three ruptured Achilles tendons, so a few jeers were unlikely to unsettle him too much.
He continued to chase, tackle, show for the ball and take possession in an attempt to initiate attacks for his team. He even meandered forward to try a shot in the first half only to skew the ball wide of target. Overall it was an extremely accomplished display in which the Scotland internationalist barely put a foot wrong.
The Souttar saga occupied plenty column inches during the cinch Premiership’s earlier-than-scheduled three-week hiatus. With his long-term future sorted, the issue switched to how his undoubted talents might be utilised for his remaining time in Edinburgh.
Manager Robbie Neilson promised before this match that Souttar still had a contribution to make and kept his word. The risk of some fans jeering didn’t influence the player’s selection. Michael Smith also retained his spot in the hosts’ starting line-up, with new Australian defender Nathaniel Atkinson named among the substitutes.
St Johnstone pitched in two of their new arrivals, striker Nadir Ciftci and centre-back Jamie Cleary. They left the third on the bench in left-back Antony Gallacher. Manager Callum Davidson knew his team badly needed points in an effort to gain traction and move away from the bottom of the league table.
Referee Nick Walsh ignored an early penalty claim from Hearts when Ginnelly tumbled near the six-yard line after a sliding challenge from the visiting defender Liam Gordon. With 25 minutes played, McKay dribbled forward for a left-footed shot from 20 yards which Zander Clark pushed away for a corner.
Ciftci then had by far the clearest scoring chance of the opening 45 minutes. A raking long ball down the middle found the Turk racing in behind Craig Halkett. One on one with Craig Gordon, Ciftci’s shot was parried by the Hearts goalkeeper and the forward couldn’t keep the rebound in play.
St Johnstone’s management team held heads in hands in the technical area. Gordon saved again ten minutes later from the same player, managing to block a dipping drive from distance. Ciftci was clearly of a mind to mark his Saints debut with a goal as the Perth side began asserting themselves.
Smith was a particularly effective member of the home team and enjoyed one of his best games up and down the right flank. He also stepped into midfield and generally looked like a player out to keep his starting place following Atkinson’s arrival.
The goalless interval scoreline suited Davidson and the relegation-threatened visitors. They came to frustrate and carried an obvious danger on the break, especially through Ciftci. However, Hearts emerged purposefully for the second period and took just 20 seconds to find a breakthrough.
McKay slid a perfectly-weighted pass through for Ginnelly at full pace. He sprinted clear of Callum Booth to dispatch a confident, low finish beyond Clark and into the net for his second goal of the season. It was the ideal way to justify his selection as a makeshift centre-forward in place of Liam Boyce, who is not yet fully fit after a calf injury.
Seizing the initiative seemed to settle Hearts down. They enjoyed a significant amount of first-half possession without creating much in the way of definite scoring opportunities. Ginnelly’s composure and clinical ability gave them a much-needed advantage at an important juncture.
They relaxed a little more 15 minutes from time when the Englishman converted his second. Again he was assisted by McKay, again he showed admirable confidence to calmly tuck the ball high beyond Clark.
Davidson would have been furious at Ciftci’s gifted pass to McKay inside the Hearts half. Ciftci and Michael O’Halloran literally fell over one another trying to chase McKay as he galloped forward almost 60 yards to supply an intelligent ball across the box for Ginnelly to finish first time.
That was that. Souttar might have been the focus of attention at kick-off but Ginnelly and McKay took care of the real business for Hearts. Their ambition to secure European football as a newly-promoted club is very much going to plan.
Hearts (3-4-3): Gordon; Souttar, Halkett (Moore 71), Kingsley; M Smith, Devlin, Haring, Cochrane; McKay (Halliday 83), Ginnelly, Mackay-Steven (McEneff 71).
St Johnstone (3-5-2): Cleary, Gordon, McCart; O’Halloran, Davidson (Crawford 80), Butterfield (Gilmour 64), MacPherson, Booth; Ciftci (Middleton 80), May (Kane 64).
Referee: Nick Walsh.