Hearts were last night defending Sam Nicholson amid allegations that he spat at an assistant referee during the 1-0 defeat by St Johnstone.
The substitute was shown a straight red card in the 83rd minute of the McDiarmid Park showdown after linesman Stephen Mitchell consulted with referee Nick Walsh in front of baying Saints supporters.
Nicholson has admitted that he did spit but is adamant that it was not aimed at the match official.
“The accusation that has been made is that he has spat in the direction of the assistant referee,” confirmed head coach Ian Cathro. “We will look at the footage but my understanding from Sam and the players around the situation is there is no way of being able to read that as an aggressive thing.
“Sam says he just spat – not at the assistant referee. Players do that in a game of football, we’ve all seen that before. My understanding is that is the case from Sam’s telling of the situation and other players around it.
“I’ve not spoken to the referee as yet. I don’t think there’s too much willingness to have that conversation just now, which I can understand. Now they are in a situation where they will be filing their report and that needs to be dealt with when we’ve got clarity.
“It’s a serious allegation and my understanding again is that the assistant referee has made the decision. So that, to me, puts a lot of pressure on the assistant to be absolutely certain that is the case. We will be looking to appeal if we review this and decide Sam is innocent. But let’s do things one step at a time and deal with it properly and as calmly as possible.”
Cathro feels Hearts have already been hard done by at the hands of Walsh – the ref, incidentally, in last week’s controversial Hibs v Morton encounter – after he sent off Esmael Goncalves in February’s defeat at Partick Thistle.
“So we suffer twice in games with this referee,” said Cathro. “It was the same situation at Partick Thistle, I think there were some parts in that game where he was a little bit quick to judge but let’s leave that there.”
Nicholson’s red card added to Hearts’ woes on a night when they suffered a sixth defeat in seven games and slipped five points behind Saints in the battle for fourth place. An angry travelling support turned on the players and management after their latest listless performance.
“This is a moment when there’s a lot of things pushing against us and that brings questions for all of us,” said Cathro. “It puts us in a situation where you’ve got to find a little bit more inside yourself and want to fight back strong and deal with it.
“I have no doubt that we have those qualities because they’ve been shown, maybe not consistently enough, but they are there. What you get in a run of results like this, of course, it starts to play on your mind. You start to expect the same things to happen again and that’s one of the mental challenges of playing and managing your way through a game of football.
“The resilience to focus on what you need to do is something that needs to be dealt with just the same as any other part of the game.”
St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright insisted his team were worthy winners in a game settled by Joe Shaughnessy’s second-half header. “Without a doubt,” he said. “Anybody who suggests otherwise is living in cuckooland. Hearts kept the ball pretty well in the first 15 minutes or so but had not one serious effort on target all night.”