With little at stake for either Hearts or St Johnstone, the 16,000 fans who rocked up at a sun-kissed Tynecastle yesterday could have been forgiven for anticipating an insipid end-of-season encounter between two groups of players with an eye on their beach holidays.
Instead, the teams served up a rip-roaring, rumbustious, topsy-turvy showdown which at one point threatened to rival the exhilarating opening-day-of-the-season 4-3 victory over Saints which set Hearts on their way to a comprehensive third-place finish.
The presence of former Hibs player Liam Craig in the Saints midfield helped ensure there was no shortage of needle in a match that ended with nine bookings and a red card. The former Hibs captain scored the opener, goaded the home support and then went on to be at the centre of the second-half flashpoint that resulted in departing Hearts striker Abiola Dauda being sent off. By the end of the match, Craig was only rivalled by referee Greg Aitken for the title of villain of the piece in the eyes of the Hearts support. Robbie Neilson had been typically animated throughout the match, but by the time his team had embarked on a well-earned after-match lap of honour, he had simmered down. Although still baffled by some decisions, he was buoyed by the way his team responded to the loss of two early goals by fighting back to 2-2 within the opening 21 minutes.
“We showed good spirit, we came back from two body blows to get back into the game and then we got Abi sent off,” said the head coach. “You always want to finish with a win but to finish it in that manner was good because it showed the fighting spirit of the team.”
Hearts handed a competitive debut to 17-year-old winger Lewis Moore, while Jack Hamilton, seeking to enhance his first-team experience after finalising a new contract with the club in midweek, was granted a third successive start as first-choice goalkeeper. Neil Alexander was again listed among the substitutes. The likes of Jamie Walker, Igor Rossi and Don Cowie were given the day off to recover from their various ailments, while there was to be no farewell Tynecastle outing for Blazej Augustyn, who also missed out through injury.
Saints handed a first competitive start to former Hearts youngster Liam Gordon, while Danny Swanson, who had a spell at Tynecastle in the first half of the season, took his place alongside ex-Hibs pair Craig and David Wotherspoon in the engine room.
Although there was little at stake for either team, the Tynecastle crowd, basking in the glorious spring sunshine, were in good spirits. After the Hearts players, wearing their Foundation of Hearts tribute strips, held up a banner pre-kick-off thanking the fans for their “incredible support”, those in the Wheatfield Stand were soon breaking in to songs revelling in the play-off misfortune of city rivals Hibs.
The Hearts players responded to the jovial mood around the stadium by getting themselves on the front foot, and Arnaud Djoum saw an effort deflected just over the bar from inside the penalty area. The wind was swiftly removed from the hosts’ sails, though, as they conceded two quickfire goals. The first came in the eighth minute when Craig slotted a penalty past Hamilton after John Souttar had been adjudged to have fouled Graham Cummins in the box. Craig enjoyed his celebration in front of a baying home support.
Four minutes later, Hearts found themselves two down when Cummins flicked in a corner from Swanson, who left Tynecastle in January to join the Perth side. At this point, the hosts seemed to be staring at the prospect of another home capitulation against Saints, who had triumphed 3-0 in Gorgie in March.
They rallied impressively, however, and just like Saints hauled themselves level with two goals in the space of four minutes. The first came in the 17th minute when Djoum sent a looping header beyond Alan Mannus after Saints failed to deal with a Prince Buaben cross.
The equaliser came from another Buaben delivery as Joe Shaughnessy, under pressure from Juanma, nodded into his net. Hearts almost went ahead in the 29th minute when Dauda headed Moore’s cross goalwards, but the Nigerian watched in despair as Mannus dived down to his right to make an excellent save.
At the other end, the home side had a let-off when Swanson thought he had knocked a Cummins cutback over the line, but referee Aitken deemed that Callum Paterson had done enough to scramble it out and waved away Saints’ claims for a goal.
After a relatively low-key start to the second half, the game came back to life in the 57th minute when, just outside the Saints box, Dauda lunged in clumsily and needlessly on Craig. Players from both sides waded in to the kerfuffle and when the dust settled, Dauda was shown a straight red card. The Nigerian’s last act in a Hearts jersey was to become embroiled in a shouting match with Saints boss Tommy Wright as he made his way off the pitch. From this point onwards, every decision by Aitken was jeered by the home support and contested by Neilson, who received a ticking off from the official. Craig, meanwhile, was the subject of derision from the Hearts fans every time he touched the ball following his angry reaction to Dauda’s challenge.
Although intensity levels remained high to the end, the clear-cut chance count was relatively low. Souttar nodded wide from sub Sam Nicholson’s corner and Alim Ozturk tested Mannus with a powerfully-struck long-distance free-kick. Saints looked the likelier winners towards the end, but Hamilton’s excellent save to deny Cummins ensured a share of the points.
It meant Hearts finished the campaign with only two wins from their closing nine games, but this statistic did little to dilute the feelgood factor around Tynecastle as the Europe-bound Hearts players embarked on an end-of-season lap of honour in front of their supporters. “We take the 2-2, it’s been a good season, it’s been a good points total and we’ll use this to build and try and get closer to the top,” said Neilson as he prepared for a well-earned break.