THE benefit of a potent strikeforce was there for all to see at Tynecastle on Saturday as Hearts suffered at the hands of Nigel Hasselbaink and Stevie May. Although defensively solid at Easter Road three days previously, individual errors again returned and St Johnstone’s forwards pounced ruthlessly.
That about summed up the afternoon as a seventh defeat in eight league outings increased fears of relegation amongst the every-loyal Gorgie support. The abandonment of St Mirren’s home match with Ross County – with the Buddie 2-0 up – due to a waterlogged pitch was the only positive of the day.
Dylan McGowan’s attempted thigh control led to Hasselbaink’s headed opener from Chris Millar’s deflected cross. Failure to properly deal with St Johnstone’s early second-half pressure saw May double the advantage. His finish was immense, curling the ball over MacDonald from a tight angle. As well as the intelligent movement and link-up play of St Johnstone’s forwards, the outstanding Tam Scobbie marshalled their defence with notable aplomb.
Hearts seemed to lack that kind of leadership. They looked despondent as soon as Hasselbaink broke the deadlock and struggled to recover. They had chances of their own during the first half as Jamie Walker, Jason Holt and young Jordan McGhee all sent efforts off target and were ruing the profligacy come full-time.
Manager Gary Locke was more upset with the erratic defending, particularly after such a solid display in last Wednesday’s League Cup quarter-final win at Easter Road. “He was disappointed with the performance of the team and the work rate,” said Kevin McHattie. “We didn’t perform as we can. Last Wednesday was a great high and the confidence was high on Thursday and Friday. Losing 2-0 has taken that right back down.
“This is going to knock the confidence but we need to build ourselves up for this week at Aberdeen. The gaffer’s been saying we need to get in to training and work our socks off to prepare for the game.”
With St Mirren’s match failing to finish, Hearts have not lost any more ground but remain 15 points adrift as they try to avoid relegation from the Scottish Premiership. “I think we can do it with the squad we’ve got but help would make a big difference,” said McHattie when asked about possible new signings if Hearts can exit administration before the January transfer window closes.
“With the size of squad we’ve got, it’s hard. A couple of injuries and we’re down to the bare bones. Hopefully in January we will be able to get a couple of players in.
“Jordan McGhee can play left-back but I’m the only preferred left-back, so I’ve got to keep myself fit.
“It’s massive that people stay behind us now. The fans have been fantastic since I came to the club three years ago. I want to thank them and hope they stick by us. Even when we lose a goal they’re behind us. Everyone is in it together and it’s great to see them backing us. You’re obviously disappointed after every game but it’s about how you react to that.”
Locke’s disappointment was etched across his face for all to see after full-time on Saturday. “We did okay in the first half and created a few chances then lost a poor goal again.
“The start of the second half killed it for us. We never defended well at all, had numerous opportunities to clear the ball and we can’t do that. Stevie May scored a good goal from his point of view but a really poor one from ours.
“The way we played during the week [against Hibs], we deserved to win the game. If we’d put in a similar type of performance on Saturday, we’d probably have taken something. We have to maintain that level of consistency and we don’t seem to be getting it. When we go a goal down, we can’t let our heads drop as badly as that because there’s still plenty time left to play. There are one or two things we need to learn from, but we need to learn quick because it’s another bad result for us.
“We’ve got the players to turn it around. It’s frustrating from my own point of view to see them do so well the other night and then defend like that. The heads were down at half-time but there’s still 45 minutes to get back in the game and the next goal was crucial. We didn’t start the second half well enough and it’s cost us.”
Tommy Wright, the St Johnstone manager, is gradually exerting his influence at McDiarmid Park and has his team playing with notable confidence. They climbed to fifth in the league as a result of this victory and are just four points behind Inverness in second place.
“We created a couple of more chances than Hearts in the first half,” said Wright. “We could possibly have had a penalty before we scored but it was nice to get the second goal. Then it’s a long way back for Hearts. We were solid at the back, we had some very good performances, and David Wotherspoon was immense. Murray Davidson came in for Patrick Cregg because we felt he was suited to this game and he had a really good game.
“Hasselbaink has now scored three in four games. It’s a nice partnership up front and Nigel’s a handful with the ball at his feet. Defenders are wary of him because he’s got good feet and body strength. I’m really pleased with him.
“Hearts had a tremendous result last Wednesday night but they do have a lot of young players. We felt if we kept the tempo of the game up it would help us.”