While it might have been an inconvenience only five days before a cup semi-final, a rescheduled fixture that means Ryan Stevenson is now free to play in Sunday’s clash with Inverness, providing he is still at the club, brought further reward in the form of a valuable three points for Hearts last night.
The Tynecastle side certainly know how to make life hard for themselves: they went behind in only 29 seconds following Steven Thompson’s header. However, the home side were both a goal and a man up just six minutes into the second half. Gary Locke’s team equalised after only four minutes through Callum Paterson. A penalty from Jamie Hamill after 51 minutes saw Hearts take the lead and their opponents reduced to ten men.
Marc McAusland’s push on Dale Carrick was interpreted as a red-card offence by referee Steven McLean. Hearts were suddenly on the front foot, something that they have experienced all too rarely this season. They are now 16 points behind 11th-placed Partick Thistle. It is worth pointing out that a year ago Hearts’ victory over Dundee left the Dens Park side 14 points adrift at the bottom – and yet they fought back to give St Mirren a fright towards the end of the season.
The exciting Sam Nicholson started for the second game in succession and he must surely be in Locke’s thoughts for the weekend, whether or not Stevenson is still around. The 19-year-old lit up the first half after both sides had exchanged early goals. Indeed, the game had barely started when the home side fell a goal behind.
Locke has urged his players to continue the momentum of the previous two unbeaten outings on the eve of the match.
Losing a goal after 29 seconds was presumably not what he had in mind. But this is what unfolded, as St Mirren poured forward with great intent straight from kick-off. Nevertheless, right winger Adam Campbell’s cross should still have been dealt with by the Hearts defence. Not for the first time, their fragility in the centre of defence was exposed. Thompson is liable to win a header even when under intense pressure. But in the absence of a challenge worthy of the term the striker hardly had to strain a sinew as he directed a header down into the net.
Locke thrust his hands deeper into his coat in frustration. He has recently had cause to hail the spirit of his young players and this was another major test of their mettle. They were tasked with responding to the quickest goal scored in the Scottish Premiership this season. Further demonstrating this team’s resilience, they had done so within three minutes of losing such a deflating opening goal.
Nicholson was the source as he carried the ball towards the St Mirren box before releasing it out wide to David Smith, whose deflected cross was met by the forehead of Paterson. If questions were prompted by Hearts’ failure to defend the earlier cross, then the same ones had to be asked in the heart of the St Mirren defence, with Paterson offered little resistance as he rose to head the ball home.
It is proving to be a purple patch of form for the striker, who has battled away manfully on his own up front throughout the season. Including his opener in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Ross County, this was his sixth strike of the season. His seventh so nearly followed soon afterwards when Nicholson sent a well-flighted cross towards the back post. Paterson again rose with great purpose but this time his header was tipped over the bar by the former Hearts goalkeeper Marian Kello, who was making his first return to Tynecastle.
Nicholson was beginning to enjoy himself. His volley from the edge of the box was blocked by Thompson, who took time to recover from taking the force of the shot in what looked like a painful area. A Smith shot was then deflected just over by Sean Kelly. Having restored parity, Hearts were now looking to complete a fine comeback, but it was St Mirren who finished the half stronger. They were the ones lamenting not having edged back in front before the interval as McAusland saw his firm header crash back off the bar after John McGinn’s corner. Jamie MacDonald then saved well from Campbell after the little winger wriggled into the box.
Those who had spent too long at the pie stall might have wondered whether they had missed a Hearts goal just moments after the restart. In actual fact, the huge commotion was the reaction to Jim Goodwin being booked after he had struck Nicholson with a high elbow. The Hearts fans had wanted a red to be shown to this pantomime villain figure, while Goodwin himself argued that he should not even have been booked.
The home supporters did not have long to wait to lift their voices in recognition of a goal. A St Mirren player did have a red card flashed in his face after 51 minutes, but it was McAusland rather than Goodwin. Carrick’s dash into the box left him with just the keeper to beat, which meant the St Mirren centre-half was forced into taking drastic action in the form of an ill-judged push. Carrick was sent sprawling. St Mirren manager Danny Lennon did not even look at McAusland as he passed him on the way down the tunnel. Hamill dealt with the penalty in his usual efficient manner, sending the ball low to Kello’s left.
“We’ll support you evermore,” sang the home fans, relishing the thought of someone else having to overcome a disadvantage, with St Mirren now forced to play nearly an entire half with ten men. It was never straightforward, although Carrick’s shot off a post almost provided some comfort with 15 minutes remaining. A wonderful double save from Kello denied first Scott Robinson and then substitute Gary Oliver in injury time.
Hearts: MacDonald, McGowan (McGhee, 83), McHattie, Hamill, McKay, Wilson, Nicholson (King, 76), Robinson, Paterson, Carrick (Oliver, 82), Smith.
Subs not used: Ridgers, Tapping, Beith.
Goals: C Paterson, 5; J Hamill, 52 (pen).
Booked: S Robinson
St Mirren: Kello, Naismith, Kelly, Goodwin, McAusland, McGregor, Campbell (Wylde, 65), Newton, McGowan (van Zanten, 90), Thompson, McGinn.
Subs not used: Dilo, Reilly, Brady, Grainger, Hughes.
Goals: S Thompson, 1.
Booked: J Goodwin, A Campbell, P McGowan.
Sent off: M McAusland.
Referee: S McLean