How Hearts' four new signings fared at St Johnstone as the Tynecastle side start the Premiership with a win
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Having scored Hearts’ final goal of last season, Yutaro Oda claimed the club’s first of this campaign during an opening-day victory at St Johnstone. The Japanese winger struck in May’s season-ending draw with Hibs and his goal in Perth along with Lawrence Shankland’s late tap-in earned three important points.
Fifteen minutes from time, Oda drilled an accurate finish into the bottom of the net in Perth and sent the sizeable travelling support into raptures. Shankland’s late strike was the icing on the cake. This was not a vintage Hearts display and St Johnstone fought commendably throughout, however all that will matter in Gorgie is the 2-0 result.
They now prepare to travel to Norway for a Europa Conference League third qualifying round tie against Rosenborg. For Steven MacLean and St Johnstone, it’s four defeats from the first five competitive games of 2023/24 following their Viaplay Cup exit.
St Johnstone and Hearts both named five summer signings in their matchday squads. Midfielder Alex Lowry’s season-long loan move from Rangers to Tynecastle Park only went through on Friday night, with Japanese forward Kyosuke Tagawa announced 24 hours previously. After a delay to kick-off because of issues with the VAR monitor, this game finally kicked off without VAR at 3.10pm. The system came back online after eight minutes.
By then, St Johnstone should have been 1-0 ahead. The unmarked Liam Gordon missed a glorious opportunity by side-footing Graham Carey’s swirling free-kick wide of goal from eight yards out.
Frankie Kent and Calem Nieuwenhof made their competitive Hearts debuts playing centre-back and attacking midfield respectively. Kent’s height made him an aerial threat at attacking set-plays, and he was often winning defensive headers and the other end.
Nieuwenhof did not seem totally comfortable in the advanced role. He instigated one attack down the left midway through the first half which ended with Peter Haring’s header bouncing wide of target. Nathaniel Atkinson also sent an attempt wide in a closely-contested match before Shankland drove a shot into the arms of the Saints goalkeeper Dimitar Mitov.
The Bulgarian collected Oda’s shot early in the second period but the game continued in end-to-end fashion. Gordon’s header was parried by Clark before Lowry replaced Nieuwenhof for his Hearts debut. He quickly made a difference to the visitors’ attacking fluidity with neat touches and flashes of skill that underlined his creative ability. He is certain to excite the Tynecastle support this season.
Tagawa came on for Forrest to add further energy at centre-forward. The most noticeable thing was his work-rate and desire to press opponents, not forgetting a deft touch and decent vision.
The Japanese internationalist was presented with his team’s clearest chance after 73 minutes. Shankland flicked Peter Haring’s pass in behind the squad St Johnstone defence for the new arrival to sprint on to. He struck his left-footed shot early from about 22 yards which Mitov pushed over his crossbar.
Hearts’ momentum was building and resulted in a breakthrough 15 minutes from time. Nathaniel Atkinson’s high ball into the penalty area dropped near Oda, who took a touch and dispatched a crisp finish into the corner of the net to put Hearts 1-0 ahead.
It was a crucial intervention entering the final stages of a game which offered little margin for error. The roar from more than 3,000 away fans told its own story. Liam Boyce and Beni Baningime then made their competitive returns as substitutes after months out with knee ligament damage and would have enjoyed playing their part in the result.
The win was complete in stoppage-time when Lowry sent a loping ball out to Boyce, who was onside as he raced forward. He squared to give Shankland a tap-in to finish the afternoon at 2-0.
St Johnstone (4-1-4-1): Mitov; Olufunwa, McClelland, Gordon, Gallacher; McGowan; Wright (Kucheriavyi 63), Ballantyne (Steven 90), Phillips (Smith 76), Carey; May (Jephcott 76).
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Clark; Atkinson, Kent, Rowles, Kingsley; Devlin (Baningime 84), Haring; Oda (Boyce 84), Nieuwenhof (Lowry 59), Forrest (Tagawa 79); Shankland.
Referee: Steven McLean.