TWO wins in 14 years at McDiarmid Park is a record Hearts are itching to improve. They can top the Ladbrokes Premiership on Saturday if they buck an unwanted trend in Perth.
Since 2002, only two Hearts teams have won away at St Johnstone. Saints spent seven seasons in a lower division during that time but have proven stubborn opponents since returning to Scotland’s top flight in 2009.
Last time a Hearts team triumphed away at St Johnstone was four years ago, when Suso Santana, Stephen Elliott and Adrian Mrowiec were amongst the first-team regulars. It was a Scottish Cup fifth round replay which went to extra-time on the Edinburgh club’s run to a memorable final success against city rivals Hibs.
The current St Johnstone side are progressing under the astute guidance of manager Tommy Wright. They are well-organised, efficient and not frightened to attack traditionally bigger clubs.
Why, though, have Hearts found McDiarmid Park such a daunting venue? Elliott played in both those wins in 2010 and 2012 and has his own theory.
“Me personally, I didn’t like that ground as a place to play in,” admitted the striker, speaking from his home in Dublin. “Obviously Hearts don’t like it in general if that’s their record over the years. I used to always think it was really hard to create an atmosphere there. It always seemed empty. I felt you had to go up there and try to create a bit of an atmosphere for yourself. That’s what happened that night in the cup.”
A disputed 90th-minute penalty was converted by Jamie Hamill to take that replay to extra-time. Marius Zaliukas struck the winner three minutes before penalty-kicks were due. That was Valentine’s Day 2012 and the romance of the cup captured the imagination of the travelling fans.
“Suso Santana won us a penalty, although I think he made the most of it,” recalled Elliott. “I remember Alan Maybury being ready to kill Suso. I was speaking to Maybs after the match and I think if he’d got hold of Suso he’d have taken his head off. I know Alan and I was trying to calm him down. That’s my abiding memory.
“That was the night we started to think it could be our season for the cup. We won a dubious penalty which Jamie did well to put away because he was getting some stick during the game. Then we got a winner. There was a lot of stuff going on that season regarding getting paid but on the pitch we knew the cup was our best chance of silverware.
“We got the penalty in the last minute and scored and I think the Hearts fans behind the goal started to believe something could be happening for us. I don’t think it was a penalty but you take them ones, don’t you?”
Hearts were enduring a difficult season off the field and weren’t paying players on time. Beating Hibs 5-1 in the Scottish Cup final helped erase the pain of previous months.
“I don’t think anybody will ever forget that day. It was monumental for the club and it’s one of the biggest memories of my time in the UK,” said Elliott.
“Everyone can be proud to have been part of it. That season was weird with the shenanigans off the pitch but somehow, in the dressing room, something just clicked. It was a great way to finish my Hearts career. A few of the lads left after that final and it was a great way to go out.
“I spent a season at Carlisle with Danny Grainger and I still speak to him. He’s buzzing being the captain of his hometown club. I’m still in touch with a few of the lads I played with at Hearts through Twitter.”
Elliott’s own career has been badly hindered by injury since he left Edinburgh in the wake of those cup final celebrations. He joined Shelbourne in April this year with Manchester City, Sunderland, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Preston, Norwich, Hearts, Coventry City and Carlisle United already on his CV.
After a varied career at all levels of British football, he wanted to finish his playing days back home. However, he left Shelbourne by mutual consent last month and must now wait until next year before he can play again in Ireland.
“I wasn’t really enjoying it as much as I thought I would at Shelbourne,” explained the 32-year-old. “I’d picked up an injury and the manager left so it just didn’t feel right for me. We came to a mutual agreement that I move on.
“I can’t play anywhere else in Ireland because of the transfer window and the season is nearly over, so maybe next year I’ll have a couple of options. I don’t really want to go back to the UK. I want to stay and let our four kids grow up here.
“For the last 15 or 16 years, me and my wife have lived all over the UK. We’ve had young children with us, taking them in and out of schools and moving houses. As much as football has been rewarding for me, it’s been very stressful on my family because we haven’t been able to settle anywhere.
“I’ve enjoyed being back among family and friends here for the first time since I moved to Manchester on my 16th birthday. I probably enjoy it more than my wife because she’s from Sunderland.
“After I left Hearts, I picked up some really bad injuries. I missed the best part of three years through a knee ligament injury and then I ruptured my Achilles. I’d been through a lot of physical pain and another couple of things happened outside of football so that’s why I decided to move back home. I feel fit enough now.”
Keeping him going is a coaching role with Shamrock Rovers Under-19s.
“I’ve really enjoyed the coaching and I’m looking to stay in the game. I did some coaching courses in Scotland. I’ll finish my B Licence in the New Year and then hopefully move straight on to the A Licence. Shamrock Rovers has been great, going in with the boys and putting on sessions. There’s nothing like being involved in a team.
“I’m seeing things from a different perspective now. To be honest, I’ve probably got a little bit more respect for the managers I had down the years than maybe I did when I was playing.”