IN recent weeks, as Hearts have tripped, stumbled and fallen, their faithful have comforted themselves that at least there was a League Cup final to come.
Scorers: St Mirren - McGowan (4 pen), Carey (45)
Referee: K Clancy
Now, after last night’s chillingly straightforward defeat at the hands of understrength hosts who will share the pitch with them in that decider, all they will feel thankful for is the existence of Dundee.
For St Mirren’s ultimately comfortable victory, underpinned by a stupendous 30-yard hit from Graham Carey, means that they have now swapped places with the Tynecastle club at the near, foot of the Scottish Premier League table. The Dens Park side have assumed permanent residence in last place and the story of the league campaign for John McGlynn’s side now begins and ends with the fact that they have a 15-point cushion on Dundee that ensures this season cannot become even more of a penance.
What will have those Hearts followers of a nervous disposition placing sharp objects under lock and key is that in their four encounters prior to last night Danny Lennon’s men had taken only one point. In the face-up of the formless finalists, however, there was really only ever going to be one winner from the fourth-minute penalty that Darren Barr gifted the Paisley club.
It was inevitable that there was much blether beforehand of this encounter as a League Cup final dress rehearsal. However, another cup tie really denuded it of that element. The paucity of available personnel makes Hearts permanently makeshift. Their opponents were also makeshift last night but, crucially, that was by design. Understandably, Lennon appeared to prioritise Saturday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final visit by Celtic in leaving Stephen Thompson, Esmael Goncalves, Kenny McLean and David van Zanten on the bench.
Maybe a desire not to show his hand 18 days before Hampden could also be factored into the St Mirren manager’s team selection. Oh, how his Tynecastle counterpart must envy such apparent luxuries. At Paisley, once more he literally had to have players patched up and sent out, Danny Wilson and Barr once again sporting head bandages following their collision in the 3-0 home defeat against Kilmarnock a week past Saturday.
Barr would have felt further wounded within four minutes of last night’s encounter. He has form for being something of a clumsy marker at corners and stayed true to that flaw in flopping all over Lee Mair as Graham Carey swung over a corner from the right. Referee Kevin Clancy was in no doubt about the illegality of the challenge in blowing for a penalty. Paul McGowan subsequently proved equally certain in smacking the resultant kick straight down the middle.
It was a horror start for a Hearts side enduring a nightmare run of league form in having posted only one win – and that by the slenderest margin at home to Dundee – from their past eight games. McGlynn says the Gorgie club engender no sympathy for their monetary meltdown that was their own doing. It is hard not to feel sorry for the Hearts manager and the youths that are bearing the brunt of owner Vladimir Romanov’s mismanagement, however.
McGlynn’s starting line-up at St Mirren contained only one player, Andy Webster, who was a first choice at the beginning of this campaign. Whatever players haven’t been lost to the finances, seem to have been put beyond his reach because of fitness issues. Defenders Marius Zaliukas and Danny Grainger were huge losses once again on a night that Barr, booked towards the half hour mark, was put out of his misery did not reappear following the interval.
Yet, for all their inadequacies, the visitors toiled manfully – or should that be boyfully – after their initial bodyblow. The direct running power of Jamie Walker had the, admirably, 526-strong travelling support sliding towards the edges of their seats on a couple of occasions, if not off it. St Mirren weren’t unduly troubled or troubling, but then they had game exactly where they wanted it. All the more so after Graham Carey produced a cannonball of a strike from 30 yards in the closing seconds of the first period. It really ought to have been accompanied by a “boom” as it blurred its way towards the top-right corner of Jamie Macdonald’s net.
To end Michael Ngoo’s frontline isolation, John Sutton was sent on for the invisible Arvydas Novikovas for the start of the second half. In it, Hearts really did produce laudable endeavour to attempt to retrieve a desperate situation. They might have done so, if Mair’s tugging at Sutton early on had been more harshly dealt with. Walker, too, was unfortunate not to gain reward for a shoot-on-sight policy, with Craig Samson making a decent block from one hit. It was all piecemeal and, right now, Hearts can have no earthly where their next crumb of comfort will come from.
St Mirren: Samson, Barron, McAusland, Mair, Dummett, McGowan, Newton, McGinn, Carey, Guy, Parkin. Subs: Adam, van Zanten, Imrie, Thompson, McLean, Kelly, Goncalves.
Hearts: MacDonald, Barr, Webster, Wilson, McHattie, Prychynenko, Tapping, Novikovas, Holt, Walker, Ngoo. Subs: Ridgers, Sutton, Taouil, Gordon Smith, McGowan, Billy King, Carrick.