It will be of little consolation, but Hearts arguably have and likely will, turn in poorer performances than they did during Saturday’s 1-0 loss to St Johnstone and come away with all three points.
Graham Cummins’ second half winner denied them a fourth successive victory and consequently, top spot in the Ladbrokes Premiership table. That they weren’t top come 5pm on Saturday wasn’t for want of attacking intent, having created a number of clear opportunities.
“We should have won the game,” Robbie Neilson stated afterwards. “The performance was really good, but that’s what happens sometimes in football – you don’t get what you deserve. I think everyone would agree we dominated possession, we were the team that passed the ball and created the chances, but there’s days like that when you don’t put them away. St Johnstone got one chance and they put it away.
“The big thing for us was that we’d given ourselves an opportunity to go top so it shows where we are at this stage of the season and where we are as a club. I thought we came here and were by far the better team – we didn’t get the result, but that’s football.”
Neilson made two changes from the team that ran out 3-1 winners over Hamilton the previous weekend. Sam Nicholson was rewarded for his influential intervention off the bench with a starting berth in place of Arnaud Djoum, and American striker Bjorn Johnsen was handed a first start with Conor Sammon making way. The 2400-strong travelling contingent would have been relieved to see ex-Hearts man Danny Swason miss out for the Saints through injury after netting a brace in last month’s 3-2 Betfred Cup win over the Jambos.
Tommy Wright had accused Hearts of “maximising contact” in the build up to this one after being awarded more than one questionable penalty this season. That came back to bite him after quarter of an hour when Cummins went over with little encouragement in the area. John Beaton duly cautioned the striker, with the Hearts fans at that end sarcastically cheering before politely informing Wright what they thought of him. That intensified late on when Chris Kane was booked for the same reason.
To Wright’s credit, he took the same approach to his own players’ transgressions. “We’ve won the game 1-0 and the simulation 2-0,” he joked initially. “I’m going to look at it – I’ve already seen Graham’s and there is contact, but the ref has told me it was for an exaggerated movement. Kano’s, I’ll look at as well and if I think the decisions are right, the player’s will be fined. It’s not something we advocate.”
Contrastingly, Neilson refused to comment, “the SFA can deal with that” being the sum of his reaction.
Prior to that, it was his team who had started the stronger. Nicholson, Watt and Johnsen all registered efforts on target without really over-exerting Zander Clark. A sweeping counter attack from the visitors did bring the best out of the Saints keeper however, who flung himself to his left to prevent Faycal Rherras netting his first Hearts goal after Watt and Nicholson had carved the hosts open down the right.
He stopped another certain goal soon after, this time after a wayward pass across the box gave Jamie Walker the seemingly simple chance of slotting home from ten yards out bang in front of goal. Clark stayed big however, and parried away with strong wrists as the away end was already on its feet in anticipation of the opener.
It was becoming Clark v the Hearts attack as he first tipped over Watt’s free-kick then kept out a powerful Igor Rossi header after the re-start. Those opportunities will have made what happened next all the more frustrating for Neilson. A cross ball found its way to Liam Craig, who didn’t quite shoot and didn’t quite cross, but the ball found Cummins’ in any case, who turned it past Hamilton under suspicion of offside.
The lead was almost doubled late on in potentialy embarrassing circumstances for Jack Hamilton. His miss-hit kick went straight to the feet of Liam Craig, and the Scotland U21 keeper almost compounded that error by palming the former Hibs man’s drive over his own head and in to the net, although managed to prevent the ball crossing the line despite claims from those in blue that it had.
When Clark did finally fail to deny Hearts himself as the game moved in to the stoppage time, the woodwork did it for him. Callum Paterson’s powerful header thudded back off the crossbar following Nicholson’s corner. Robbie Muirhead almost salvaged a point with the last kick, but stabbed agonisingly wide as St Johnstone failed to scramble the ball clear.
After falling to a second league defeat Neilson remained positive, and explained he will be content if his charges continue to take the same attacking approach as the season goes on. “I would far rather come here and play the way we did, create loads of chances and not win than just bang the ball long and hope for something to happen and get a scrap,” he said. “That’s not going to get us anywhere – the players don’t enjoy it, I don’t enjoy it and the fans don’t enjoy it.
“It’s about progressing the club, progressing the young players and we did that today. We’ve got a group of really good players and we’re not going to be negative and say we’re going to come to St Johnstone to win by any means possible if that means just shelling it. No, we’ll come here and we’ll play the right way. If that means at times we don’t get the result that we want then we have to accept it, because nine times out of ten we will get the result.”