Craig Levein takes pride in ‘imperious’ defensive display by Hearts

Defending is a skill Craig Levein mastered during his playing career. He therefore wants his teams guarding their goal fervently and defiantly. With John Souttar fit again, Christophe Berra leading by example and Michael Smith just his ever-reliable self, it was no surprise seeing Hearts look defensively solid once more against St Johnstone.

Wednesday, 30th January 2019, 5:30 am
Christophe Berra

Saturday’s 2-0 win provided a welcome tonic three days after a depressing 2-1 home defeat by Dundee. Tommy Wright, the St Johnstone manager, employed every available tactic to break through the Tynecastle Park rearguard. None of them worked. Tony Watt tried his craft, Matt Kennedy ran in behind, Callum Hendry came on to add physicality, Danny Swanson probed with through balls, and Michael O’Halloran was thrown into the mix for extra pace.

The end result was not a single save recorded by the Hearts goalkeeper Colin Doyle. As an international keeper of some repute in his heyday, Wright must have begrudgingly admired the opposition’s solidity watching from his technical area. Levein stood just yards away lapping it up.

“I thought our back line was imperious,” said the manager, himself an international centre-back. “St Johnstone tried loads of different things. They had pace, they had Tony Watt’s guile, then they put the young lad Callum Hendry on, who is quite good in the air. O’Halloran came off the bench to add more pace, but no matter what they did they couldn’t penetrate us. For me, that was a pleasing thing to see.”

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Souttar’s first start following three months out with a hip injury was a major factor. Likewise, Berra returned from a torn hamstring last month and has fitted seamlessly in at centre-back. Smith is proving himself a damn fine sweeper for a right-back by trade.

That triumvirate formed Hearts’ back three against St Johnstone, with Levein reverting to a four midway through the second half to combat the visitors’ attacking substitutes. Their diligence will be needed again on Friday night when the Edinburgh club travel to Rugby Park to play a Kilmarnock team sitting joint-second in the Premiership table.

“I said to Michael Smith if he brings his gloves this week then I’ll give him a shot in goals,” joked Levein. “He is so adept at shifting around and putting in a seven-out-of-ten performance every week. He started at sweeper against St Johnstone, then he goes to left-back and it doesn’t make any difference. Then he goes to right-back and it’s the same.”

Kilmarnock added a new face this week with the loan signing of striker Conor McAleny from Fleetwood Town. The 26-year-old Everton youth academy product scored ten goals in 19 games on loan at Oxford United in England’s League One in 2017. He arrives in Scotland hoping to re-ignite his career as a player known to the Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke from his time south of the Border.

Clarke’s starting line-up is now slightly more difficult to predict than normal. Underpinning his success in Ayrshire has been consistency of team selection and he will be mindful that Hearts won 1-0 at Rugby Park in August. His approach this time is open to speculation for a couple of reasons.

“We don’t quite know who will be playing for them because they signed a new player on Monday, and obviously he could be involved. That’s something we will need to look at,” said Levein. “They are also appealing Kris Boyd’s red card from the weekend [against Aberdeen], so we need to wait and see if he will be available or not.”

Hearts will nonetheless travel west with confidence after dominating a St Johnstone side which arrived at Tynecastle in a rich vein of form. The Perth club had won ten of their previous 14 matches in all competitions. They also boasted statistics like six wins from their preceding six away games without losing a goal.

On Foundation of Hearts Day, when Hearts thank the thousands of fans who fund the club through monthly cash donations, a strong response to that Dundee defeat was vital.

“I think when the supporters go away disappointed after a game, they sometimes think the players don’t care. This group of players care so much. Everybody was really disappointed last Wednesday,” insisted Levein. “We had been beating ourselves up for two or three days. The determination was there, not just to make up for it on Saturday, but not to let that happen again.

“I keep saying this because I think it’s important: It was only the first half I was really disappointed with against Dundee. The second half was actually much better when you look at it in the cold light of day.

“However, we excelled against St Johnstone all over the field. Our midfield dominated, Steven Naismith caused all sorts of problems, helped by Sean Clare and Olly Lee, and the back line were excellent. Colin Doyle said he didn’t have to make a save.

“The players should take confidence from that. I was chuffed to bits with them. Saturday was really important for us as a club because Foundation of Hearts Day is a big thing for us. They have 8,000 members who were involved in keeping this club alive, so it’s important on a day like that we send people home remembering why they spend their money. That’s the thing. It’s vital that Hearts remains one of the most important things in their lives.”