Hearts will feel aggrieved that having had the ball in the back of Craig Samson’s net in the dying seconds of the first half, the officials ruled the effort offside, despite television pictures proving the opposite. Then there was the tug on Ian Black in the build-up to the equaliser five minutes from time. It left the midfielder incensed, his mood hardly lightened by the fact that it was the perpetrator of the foul who finally helped St Mirren find the breakthrough and secure a replay.
But that goal will seem like justice for the travelling team. They were exceptional in an opening 30 minutes in which they threatened to overwhelm their hosts. In the end, few neutrals will complain that this will now go to a replay, a week on Wednesday. After all, this is what cup ties are all about.
It was packed with energy, desire and an ebb and flow that rendered it captivating. This was a match that reminded everyone that all is not lost. OK, only 8,859 fans trooped along to Tynecastle – the lowest home crowd of the season – underlining the problems with cash and the conflict of televising games live, but anyone who paid their cash will feel they had value for money.
A swing in superiority, quality football, a competitive edge, tactical switches, a few goals and just as many controversial refereeing decisions were all the ingredients needed for an enthralling contest, which delivered throughout.
St Mirren were the sharper out of the blocks and their high tempo and quality movement and passing gave them a telling hold on the game. Paul McGowan and Steven Thompson combined in the seventh minute but the big striker’s effort was held by Jamie MacDonald.
Then there was a handball shout against Danny Grainger as the Paisley side piled on the pressure. Three minutes later McGowan sclaffed a great opportunity wide as Hearts struggled to get a foothold in the game.
Overrun in midfield, they opted to push Stephen Elliott back to help swamp the area but there were still major issues. Andy Driver offered a glimmer of hope when he burst into the box but his heels were clipped – enough to put him off and Samson saved. But it looked a more legitimate penalty claim than the handball shouts. Soon after, St Mirren got the lead their early play had merited. Adrian Mrowiec, who was totally out of sorts, lost the ball and forced Andy Webster into a rash challenge on Nigel Hasselbaink in the 27th minute. From the free kick Graham Carey’s strike was curled through the wall and into the net.
In the 38th minute, though, Beattie squared matters. Elliott’s tenacity won Hearts a corner and from Grainger’s delivery, last month’s signing jumped to head home.
Hearts have proved their resilience against Danny Lennon’s men before. In the last league encounter they were losing 2-1 and a man down when Rudi Skacel intervened, and in the immediate aftermath of the equaliser, the Czech international was sent on in place of Mrowiec. It was an astute, albeit overdue, move as Paulo Sergio sought some creative nous in the absence of the poorly Scott Robinson.
Hearts were edging their way back into the play and with seconds of the first half remaining, they should have taken the lead when Ian Black’s effort was fired into the area, finding Beattie at the back post, but as the net ruffled the assistant referee already had his flag raised.
Beattie said he had gambled slightly but was happy when he saw the ball head goalwards. “I’ve not seen it again but I have had enough text messages to know what’s going on.
“I’m very, very frustrated. It took us 20 minutes to get hold of the game but then we dominated it and should have gone on to win.”
In the second half they took the lead and it was that man Skacel who got it. Driver fed Beattie and he swung in the ball which Skacel glanced past Samson.
“You find that some players have a knack of scoring against a particular side,” said Lennon. “What age is he? We can’t wait to see the back of him!”
By then the tempo was slowing slightly but the tussle remained engrossing and both managers agreed that their teams had combined to put on a quality show.
Hearts could have killed things off, with Elliott, Beattie and Skacel all getting chances, but when St Mirren mustered another quick break with just six minutes remaining, Hearts contributed to their own downfall.
With Black sprawled on the turf, Jamie MacDonald blocked Hasselbaink’s close-range drive at the front post, then foiled Gary Teale’s effort from the rebound but in the end he couldn’t stop Hasselbaink’s next shot when it clipped the heel of defender Marius Zaliukas and squeezed between the dejected keeper and the near post.
“St Mirren were the best team I have ever seen playing here at Tynecastle this season,” said Paulo Sergio, “and one of the best teams playing football in this league and they created a lot.”
He said they had tested him tactically and his team in every other sense and is aware the replay is far from a formality, despite the fact his men remain unbeaten by the Paisley team this term. But he is also aware that the trip to New St Mirren Park would not be necessary were it not for some questionable refereeing. “That is football. We all make mistakes. But we will leave it at that.”
It will undoubtedly irritate him but given the way St Mirren started he can be grateful that his men found a way back at all. So can the neutrals who will look forward to another helping of this.
MAN OF THE MATCH Craig Beattie (Hearts) His first start for the club and a worthwhile contribution. Ran himself into the ground and scored one and set up his team’s other goal.
TALKING POINT Disallowing Craig Beattie’s effort on the stroke of half-time was a blunder.
Referee: S O’Reilly. Attendance: 8,859.