HEARTS enjoyed a much-needed morale boost when they brought a run of five defeats to an end.
A first-half strike by Ryan Stevenson put them ahead and a late second from John Sutton wrapped up the win, but every man in maroon played his part in a far more determined performance, with Michael Ngoo being a constant menace to the St Johnstone defence.
The result took Hearts above St Mirren and back into tenth place in the SPL.
Hearts’ interim managers Gary Locke and Darren Murray persisted with the 4-4-2 formation that had shown some promising signs in the second half of the previous 2-1 defeat by Motherwell, with Sutton again playing up front alongside Ngoo. Fraser Mullen started at right-back in place of the injured Dylan McGowan, Darren Barr returned to midfield in place of Calum Tapping, and there was also a start for Arvydas Novikovas, who had replaced Tapping at half-time three days earlier.
After conceding two goals in the first eight minutes of that match, the home team knew their initial task was to remain well organised in defence. For their part, St Johnstone were well aware that Hearts could be nervous early on, and they tested the back four in the opening minute, when Rowan Vine made headway down the left and delivered a cross which was just out of reach of Mehdi Abeid at the back post.
Abeid returned the compliment less than a minute later, slipping a ball through to Vine, whose low shot from a tight angle was well saved by Jamie MacDonald. Hearts were soon on the attack themselves, and Sutton headed over the bar from ten yards out after Kevin McHattie had crossed from the left.
Ten minutes on from those opening exchanges, Sutton had the ball in the net, only to have the goal disallowed for offside. Ngoo had set Barr free on the right of the box, and the midfielder’s low ball was turned in by the striker from a yard out, but the assistant referee’s flag was up immediately.
In an open game played at a brisk tempo, chances continued to be created at both ends.
MacDonald had to be alert to keep out a Murray Davidson shot then, almost immediately, Taouil put Sutton through on Alan Mannus but the goalkeeper blocked as the striker tried to lob him.
By the time half an hour had been played St Johnstone had begun to push more men forward, and that was their undoing when Hearts launched a swift counter-attack up the left. Novikovas crossed low towards Ngoo, and although Mannus blocked before the giant Englishman could reach the ball, Stevenson followed up and netted the rebound from close to the penalty spot.
Mannus did well to save from Ngoo two minutes later as Hearts tried to press home their advantage then, in the next attack, the keeper was beaten by a curling shot from the same player, but was grateful to see the scoring attempt go wide of his far post.
Steve Lomas made a tactical switch five minutes before the break, putting Gregory Tade on for Abeid, who looked distinctly disgruntled to be substituted. The substitute had an immediate impact, making space on the edge of the area and passing to Steven MacLean, who was just offside but shot into the net anyway.
St Johnstone were by no means out of the contest, but Hearts ended the half on top, and Ngoo had two chances to double their lead. First, he wriggled around in the box then shot just past the left post, then he looked sure to score when through on goal only for Mannus to save at the second attempt.
A low shot from the same player in stoppage time was softer, and easily gathered by Mannus, but it was a sign of Ngoo’s – and Hearts’ – growing confidence.
That confidence might have taken a dent early in the second half had Dave Mackay’s free-kick found the net, but the Saints captain floated his attempt a few inches over the bar.
At the other end Hearts had a good opportunity to go two up when a free-kick from the left by Fraser Mullen was driven deep into the box, but three attackers failed to connect as the defence appeared oblivious to the danger.
Ngoo was just off target with a snapshot midway through the half and, soon after that, Murray Davidson was just wide with a header from a Liam Craig free-kick. The game was still in the balance but most of the chances were falling to Hearts and Ngoo should have been on target when another free-kick by Mullen was diverted into his path.
Hearts’ defence was notably more settled than it had been in the previous two or three games, and Andy Webster showed his reading of the game when he cleared a Tade header from just shy of the line after Mackay’s teasing cross from the right.
That showed St Johnstone had not given up hope of getting back on terms, but that hope was extinguished with less than ten minutes to play when Sutton tapped in Hearts’ second. Ngoo did the hard work by holding off the challenge of Steven Anderson down the right, then he drove on into the box and timed his cross to the far post well.
Murray Davidson thought he had pulled a goal back when he netted in the dying minutes but, again, the offside flag went up.
Hearts: MacDonald, Mullen, Webster, Wilson, McHattie, Taouil (Holt 76), Barr, Stevenson, Novikovas (Walker 64), Sutton (Smith 86), Ngoo. Subs not used: Ridgers, Prychynenko, Tapping, Carrick.