HEARTS escaped with a point in Perth despite playing most of the match with ten men after Juanma Delgado’s red card for headbutting.
St Johnstone’s Steven MacLean missed a penalty as the Edinburgh club survived sustained second-half pressure to earn a draw.
Juanma’s 27th-minute headbutt on David Wotherspoon left Hearts facing a difficult task in this encounter between two clubs competing for European football. The Spaniard’s indiscipline saw him lose his temper but his team-mates rallied against a St Johnstone side which threw everything at Neil Alexander’s goal.
MacLean’s penalty on 78 minutes would almost certainly have won the points for the hosts after Miguel Pallard’s foul on Chris Kane. However the striker could only rue a finish which landed in the stand and kept Hearts in the game. The visitors had goalkeeper Neil Alexander to thank for several saves which ensured they left with a battling draw.
Blustery conditions made life difficult for the players but defensively Hearts looked uncertain in the opening stages of the match. A couple of backpasses to Alexander were short, although they didn’t present St Johnstone with any clear openings. Juwon Oshaniwa was reinstated at left-back after Jordan McGhee’s costly handball at Aberdeen last weekend and he tried to get forward when possible.
The hosts posed a danger with both John Sutton and MacLean in attack, supported by the in-form Michael O’Halloran from the right flank. They forced a series of corners and, from one in the 25th minute, defender Steven Anderson found himself unmarked for a header which Alexander collected easily.
With 27 minutes played, this game erupted in controversy as Juanma and Wotherspoon clashed in midfield. The grounded Saints player appeared to kick out after being knocked over by the Spaniard, who needlessly reacted by headbutting his opponent. Referee Kevin Clancy tried to restore order as Liam Craig and Hearts coach Robbie Neilson angrily remonstrated with one another. He then issued a straight red card to Juanma but took no action against Wotherspoon.
Hearts’ Callum Paterson confronted Juanma in a rage before the striker left the field and made clear his disgust that his colleague’s indiscipline had given St Johnstone a numerical advantage.
The Perth side tried to make that count when MacLean caught Oshaniwa in possession on the edge of his own penalty box. He squared to Darnell Fisher, who moved the ball on to Davidson, but his final shot was wide. Sutton headed full-back Brian Easton’s cross narrowly over the crossbar as Saints tried to fashion a lead before the interval.
They couldn’t and the second period saw ten-man Hearts try to stifle their opponents and stay in the game, with Sow left up front alone. Easton strode forward for a 20-yard shot which stung Alexander’s palms, although on 55 minutes the visitors came close to taking the lead. Sam Nicholson’s cross from the right was headed goalwards by Sow and the ball careered off Dave Mackay before spinning narrowly over the crossbar.
Liam Craig’s effort from 25 yards angled over Alexander’s goal frame on 64 minutes but at that stage St Johnstone were struggling to break their guests down. Murray Davidson’s shot was blocked, Igor Rossi stopped O’Halloran’s header on the goal line and Alexander was in the right place to collect the rebound attempt.
There was no doubt Hearts were living dangerously. Gavin Reilly and Pallardo were introduced from the substitutes’ bench to try and add fresh legs, and Reilly had a header from another Nicholson cross which Mannus held. Then came a potential match-winner for St Johnstone when Pallardo fouled their sub Kane and conceded a penalty. MacLean stepped up to the spot, however he sent the ball high over Alexander’s crossbar, much to Hearts’ relief.
There was another let-off when only Alexander’s legs prevented Kane converting MacLean’s pass from close range. Each ball St Johnstone put into the Hearts box sparked a scramble as the minutes ticked away. McLean teed up Davidson deep into stoppage-time, but again Alexander’s leg preserved what was by now a precious clean sheet for Hearts.
They held on for a point which was nothing if not hard-earned.
St Johnstone (4-4-2): Mannus; Fisher, Mackay, Anderson, Easton; O’Halloran, Wotherspoon, Davidson, Craig; Sutton, MacLean.
70: Kane for Sutton
84: Saughnessy for Fisher
Unused subs: Clark, Scobbie, McKay, Caddis, Thomson.
Hearts (4-4-2): Alexander; Paterson, Augustyn, Rossi, Oshaniwa; Nicholson, Djoum, Gomis, Buaben; Sow, Juanma.
70: Pallardo for Buaben
75: Reilly for Sow
87: McGhee for Djoum
Unused subs: Hamilton, Ozturk, King, Swanson.
Referee: Kevin Clancy.