There was probably no doubting it after their weekend antics but St Johnstone are a team up for the fight. And while this win may not count as a knockout blow in terms of the battle for fourth place, Joe Shaughnessy’s winner served to knock the stuffing out of a Hearts team who must now be glancing nervously over their shoulders.
The 73rd-minute winner was no more than the home side deserved and leaves them five points ahead of their capital rivals who seem intent on undermining their own chances.
A fumble by keeper Jack Hamilton gifted the Perth side the corner, which was headed home by the Saints defender with 17 minutes remaining. Then, with less than 10 minutes to go, substitute Sam Nicholson, who had been sent on to try to spark a revival, let the team down, allegedly spitting in the direction of the linesman and earning himself a red card. It all contributed to another sorry 90 minutes for the Tynecastle side.
The argument after Hearts’ hefty defeat at the hands of Celtic on Sunday was that for half of the match they had been equal to the champions in all but the goals return. The same could not be said last night and that is the worry for a Tynecastle club desperate for a run of positive performances and in need of some winning results.
Ian Cathro had opted to field an unchanged side, confident that his starting line-up possessed enough to earn him what would be only his sixth victory since taking the helm in Gorgie. But the pressing, high-tempo way they opened up against Brendan Rodgers’ men was not evident in this one.
They enjoyed possession in the opening 20 minutes but it is their inability to do anything threatening with it that continues to prove detrimental to their push up the placings. While Hearts opted for an element of continuity, St Johnstone were forced to make changes. The red mist that descended on both Danny Swanson and Richard Foster at Hamilton on Saturday ensured that. Suspended after their astonishing bust-up, the pair had been instructed to stay well clear of McDiarmid Park. On paper that should have helped Hearts, who headed north looking for their first win in Perth since 2012.
But time and again Tommy Wright conjures up solutions to the kind of problems that should preclude his team from reaching the top slots in the Premiership, let alone staying there year after year.
Once again they have defied their budget and, going into this one, they enjoyed a two- point advantage over their guests as they both vie for a fourth place and the opportunity to make it into the Europa League qualifiers should anyone other than Hibernian win the Scottish Cup.
The rammy at the weekend did deprive them of two men who would surely have started, though, wth Foster impressive throughout the campaign and Swanson a source of significant annoyance to his former employers in his two previous meetings with them this term. Minus his guile and goals – he netted three times in those two head to heads – Wright was forced to shuffle the pack, with Murray Davidson also missing. But he was able to bring in the attacking threat of David Wotherspoon and Steven MacLean, while young Clive Smith was also elevated to a place in the starting line-up.
It took until the 23rd minute for either side to carve out any scoring chance of note. When it arrived it was 19-year-old Smith, on loan from Preston, who played in Blair Alston. Five minutes later and Paul Paton tested Hearts keeper Hamilton. The danger came from a free-kick taken by Smith and, when the cross was played into the Hearts area, it was met by the Saints’ midfielder. His screamer from the edge of the box was goalbound but Hamilton dived to get a strong hand to it and deny the home side.
After half an hour, St Johnstone had another effort but Brian Easton’s effort crashed off the bar and Alston’s follow up strike was blocked by Krystain Nowak. Moments later it was Graham Cummins who was denied as Hamilton managed to tip the ball over the bar. Another Craig free-kick found David Wotherspoon but he could not find the net with his header.
After the interval Tasos Avlonitis was almost punished after his slip allowed Craig in but, while those errors have been costing Hearts in recent weeks, he escaped punishment this time around as the shot was skewed wide of target.
After an hour, Hearts tried to get back into the contest and Tom Scobbie blocked from Isma Goncalves, who minutes earlier had dropped to the turf with what looked like a groin problem. It rebounded to Kitchen, who ballooned his effort high.
But it took until the 67th minute for Hearts to force Saints keeper Alan Mannus into action and, even then, Bjorn Johnsen’s effort was weak. It summed up the performance and, when Shaughnessy popped up six minutes later, he ensured both teams got what they deserved from the match.