Hearts’ long wait for League Cup glory continues after two of their former players contrived to eliminate them from the competition in a topsy-turvy last-16 tie at McDiarmid Park.
Danny Swanson and Brad McKay, who both left Tynecastle for Perth recently after failing to command regular game time, did the damage. The former scored a double, either side of goals from Hearts pair Callum Paterson and Jamie Walker, before McKay, a half-time substitute, headed a late winner.
The defeat ensures Hearts’ League Cup drought will now enter a 55th year. In the short term, it significantly dents optimism levels amongst fans who, after a summer of minor Europa League-induced discontent, had been buoyed by their team’s valiant performance in defeat to Celtic on Sunday.
Hearts made three changes to the side that started against the champions at Tynecastle. Sam Nicholson and Tony Watt dropped to the bench, while Faycal Rherras dropped out of the squad altogether with a minor injury. Robbie Muirhead was handed his first competitive start as Conor Sammon’s partner in attack, while Prince Buaben came in to anchor midfield. Captain Alim Ozturk returned to central defence after serving a suspension on Sunday, with Igor Rossi shuffling across to left-back to fill the void left by Rherras. Walker was berthed on the left of midfield after his club rejected the offer of a two-match ban for alleged simulation in Sunday’s match. The 23-year-old found himself jeered all evening by the home support. Once again, there was no Juanma Delgado in the match-day squad, with the Spanish striker’s future at the club in jeopardy amid concerns about his work ethic.
The Saints starting XI had a fairly familiar look, with ex-Hibs midfielders David Wotherspoon and Liam Craig included along with Swanson, who had an unfulfilling six-month stint at Tynecastle last season.
Hearts almost went ahead with the first notable attack of the match in the sixth minute when Sammon, who impressed against Celtic on Sunday, collected a loose ball midway inside the Saints half, surged into the danger area and smashed a low strike from 25 yards out off Alan Mannus’s right-hand post. However, the visitors, without doing a lot wrong, found themselves trailing three minutes later. Don Cowie was booked for tripping Craig as he burst dangerously towards the Hearts penalty area. Craig picked himself up, rolled the free-kick square to Swanson, who, from around 30 yards out, arced a sensational right-footed shot in off the underside of Jack Hamilton’s crossbar.
As the former Hearts player celebrated ecstatically with his team-mates, the large travelling support, wary of yet another League Cup disappointment, were left in stunned silence.
There was to be no immediate response forthcoming from the Tynecastle side. Indeed, it took another 20 minutes for either side to register an effort of any note, when St Johnstone striker Chris Kane blazed a shot wide after collecting possession just inside the Hearts box.
Blair Alston then saw a menacing shot from the edge of the box pushed behind by Hamilton.
The visitors had a chance to level the match in the 36th minute when Arnaud Djoum was caught by a high boot from Paul Paton just outside the penalty area, but Ozturk curled the free-kick over the bar.
At that point, Hearts, without having done much of note as an attacking force, couldn’t have imagined they’d be going in ahead at the interval. However, they got themselves level in the 42nd minute. After Muirhead’s well-struck free-kick from 20 yards out was beaten away by Mannus, the ball eventually found its way out to Rossi on the left flank. The Brazilian pinged a looping cross into the box and Paterson nipped in to nod home from six yards out.
The right-back was instrumental in the visitors taking the lead in first-half stoppage-time. After collecting possession wide on the right and bursting into the box, Paterson was barged over by Tam Scobbie. Walker grabbed the ball, and, as was the case on Sunday, he kept his cool amid the jeers from the opposing fans to slot clinically past Mannus and give Hearts an unlikely interval lead.
Saints introduced former Hearts defender McKay from the bench in place of Scobbie for the start of the second half. The big centre-back, a boyhood Jambo, was given a warm round of applause from the travelling support. Little did they know that he would soon be the man to end their Betfred Cup hopes.
St Johnstone had a flurry of pressure around the 53rd minute when captain Brian Easton had a couple of shots blocked by John Souttar and then Hamilton, before Souttar did well to deflect an Alston shot behind. From the resulting corner, Swanson rolled the ball to Craig, who had cleverly peeled away from the packed six-yard box, but the ex-Hibs captain saw his powerful effort from 12 yards brilliantly tipped over by Hamilton.
Hearts were looking the likelier side for much of the second half, however. Just before the hour mark, Cowie knocked a Souttar pass into Sammon’s path but the Irishman pulled his shot from the angle of the box just wide.
Sammon had another half-chance a minute later when Djoum tried to release him on goal, but the striker was unable to shake off the attention of Steven Anderson, and Mannus was able to gather.
Hearts then made a double change in the 62nd minute when Watt and Nicholson were introduced in place of Muirhead and Walker. The latter received a rousing round of applause from an away support, who sensed a place in the quarter-finals was there for the taking.
Watt almost made an instant impact with a brilliant run down the right which forced a corner off Liam Craig. The former Celtic attacker had several promising moments as Hearts looked to close out victory.
However, from seeming in total command of the tie, Hearts found themselves behind and staring at elimination after seven disastrous minutes.
In the 73rd minute, Ozturk tripped Swanson after slack play by Paterson allowed him into the danger area. The former Hearts midfielder picked himself up to slot home his second of the night.
Things got worse for Hearts with ten minutes left when McKay powered his way through a ruck of bodies to head home an Alston corner.
It ensured a wretched night for Robbie Neilson, who is still searching for his first notable cup run as head coach.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Shaughnessy, Anderson, Scobbie (McKay 46), Easton; Wotherspoon, Alston, Paton, Craig (MacLean 66), Swanson; Kane. Unused subs: Millar, Clark, Coulson, Hurst, Comrie.
Hearts: Hamilton; Paterson, Ozturk, Rossi, Souttar; Djoum, Cowie, Buaben (L Smith 83), Walker (Watt 62); Muirhead (Nicholson 62), Sammon. Unused subs: Nowak, Noring, Oshaniwa, Zanatta.
Referee: Crawford Allan.