THE international break has come at just the right time for Hearts.
Managers and players alike normally insist they want to play another match as soon as possible after a heavy defeat, but in this case Gary Locke and his squad could do with the time to clear their heads before battle is resumed on Saturday week.
Hearts are showing no sign of physical tiredness, and, whatever their other limitations, they continue to put in every available ounce of effort. But they do look mentally tired after a sequence of high-pressure games, and some of the least experienced players are now at the point where, in normal circumstances, the manager would think of giving them a rest from the rigours of first-team football.
No such option is available to Locke, of course. So the manager will have to hope, to reverse the proverb, that a rest is as good as a change.
If the greatest brains in world football gathered at Tynecastle and watched the tapes of a few of Hearts’ recent games, they would not have a great deal of relevant advice for Locke. The odd minor piece of tactical planning might not have gone to plan; ditto the occasional selection; but realistically there is little more he could have done with the resources at his disposal.
That was the case before Saturday’s defeat and it remains the case this morning. The fact that before the match St Mirren had been seen as the weakest team in the league made the loss harder to take, but given Kilmarnock lost as well, the upshot of the afternoon was that the Edinburgh side are now just a point worse off than they were when it started: ten points, rather than nine, adrift of the club in 11th.
What is more, they have still to suffer a really heavy loss. Such a result was widely predicted after their opening-day defeat at St Johnstone, a 1-0 reverse that should have been 3-0 or 4-0, according to some who saw it. Granted, losing a string of games by one or two goals is not in itself any cause for celebration, but it does show that, for all their inexperience, Hearts have not been outclassed.
The tempo at which they play is at times determined by emotion rather than by rational understanding, but that is perhaps the only aspect of the game where their collective naivety is shown up. Certainly, in terms of organisation and understanding they are the equals of the majority of their opponents, and players such as captain Danny Wilson have a maturity beyond their years.
So why did St Mirren win? Because their defence was stronger, particularly in the air, and because they were better at taking their chances.
Two incidents, barely a minute apart, summed up the difference in finishing between the sides. First, after an exchange of passes down the right between Billy King and Ryan Stevenson, Callum Paterson sent a first-time shot over the bar from little more than ten yards out. Then, at the other end of the park, Jamie MacDonald spilled a cross, allowing Paul McGowan to tap it home for St Mirren’s second.
That was with more than half an hour to play, but that was the end of the contest. As it was, even if Paterson had scored, there was nothing up to that point to suggest that St Mirren would have folded.
Danny Lennon claimed afterwards that everyone had expected his side to crumble, but that was not the case. Anyone who had seen them draw with Aberdeen on Monday night would have realised they had significantly improved from their previous performances, and that a first win of the season would not be too far away.
They looked a proper team again, their morale was good, and they were clearly bitterly disappointed that a late goal by Niall McGinn denied them all three points. Any notion that they had given up playing for their manager was dispelled that night, and the way in which they played on Saturday built on the firm foundations laid then.
The first half was relatively even, the significant difference being that St Mirren’s crosses into the box were far more threatening than Hearts’. Several chances had already gone abegging when, four minutes before half-time, the breakthrough came. A Conor Newton cross from the right was missed by several players as it swung towards the back post, but John McGinn timed his run well to nod it in.
Hearts brought King on for the second half in place of Scott Robinson, and moved Stevenson up from midfield to partner Paterson. The intention was positive, but the main effect was to allow St Mirren’s central midfield more space in which to dictate the play.
Once the second goal had gone in, Jamie Walker, in particular, threw everything he had into the effort to get at least one back, But by the closing stages St Mirren looked more likely to extend their lead than Hearts did to narrow it.