GARY Locke has always accepted that Hearts deserve to be punished for going into administration, and has never asked that his inexperienced team be given favourable treatment by the authorities. But he does expect fair treatment and, as far as he is concerned, that has not been forthcoming in recent days.
Both Locke’s team and St Johnstone were arguably harshly treated during their 3-3 draw in Perth last Saturday. Hearts’ Kevin McHattie twice had penalties awarded against him by referee Brian Colvin – once for an offence outside the box, the second time when the ball appeared to strike his arm.
St Johnstone’s Gary McDonald was sent off in the first half – a decision that was rescinded yesterday – then home goalkeeper Alan Mannus and Hearts’ Ryan Stevenson saw red in a frenzied finale in which the visitors fought back from 3-1 down to earn a point. And Frazer Wright was involved in a similar incident to the second penalty given against McHattie, but this time there was no spot-kick award for Hearts.
Locke, whose team have had more penalties given against them than anyone else in the Premiership, can accept that mistakes were made against both sides. What he finds unacceptable is the fact that Colvin phoned St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright to apologise for his errors, but did not make a similar call to himself.
“That was good of the referee, wasn’t it?” Locke said yesterday. “I’m still waiting on my phone call. I would have appreciated one.
“I spoke to [SFA referees development officer] John Fleming, but I’m not the only one. It’s not as if I’m sitting here making things up – you saw the first penalty decision and it was three yards outside the box.
“I don’t expect referees to phone every manager and what have you. But if he’s going to phone Tommy then he should have phoned me as well.
“To be fair to McHattie and all the players, to respond and get back to 3-3 considering the decisions that went against us was fantastic. Kevin is a quiet lad, and it’s difficult to get anything out of him at times, but I think he has shown the character he has got this year.
“It has been difficult for him, because there have been occasions where I would have liked to have given him a rest, but he’s the only recognised left back we have at the club, so he’s had to play through a lot. But it is testament to his character he has done so well.
“I haven’t shown him the incidents again – I didn’t want to demoralise him! But he’s seen them. He came in at half-time and said himself it wasn’t a penalty, because I tend to ask them. He was adamant at the time, so obviously I had to take his word for it. Obviously he was spot on.”
As things stood, Stevenson would have missed the League Cup semi-final against Inverness on Sunday week because of the two-match ban he picked up as a result of his sending-off in Perth. But Hearts have since rearranged their home league match against St Mirren for next Wednesday, so their most experienced player will now sit out that match and the one tomorrow at Ross County.
“There’s no point in lying. The reason we rearranged it was to get Ryan available for the semi-final, because he’s an important player for the team,” Locke explained. “It’s obviously not ideal to have such a big game days before such a big semi-final but I think, if we’re going to give ourselves any chance, we want our strongest team on the pitch.
“I think you’ve seen this season when Ryan has not been available he has been a big loss to the team. So it was a decision made by everyone at the club to try to rearrange the game. You risk someone getting sent off or injured, but I think it’s a risk worth taking.”
Hearts have not won since early November, and hopes of escaping relegation appear long gone. But Locke continues to take positives from whatever source he can, and has been encouraged by the courage and character of his young squad.
“I was really pleased with Saturday – the commitment and spirit was there for everyone to see. I was obviously not too happy about a couple of other things, but the character was there and the boys have certainly been a bit bubblier this week.
“We’ve said all season you will always get inconsistency with such a young squad, but one thing you can’t level at them is that they don’t fight for the cause. Maybe there have been two or three games where we have been poor on the day – I think you’re going to get that with kids – but I think the fans in the main appreciate the effort and commitment they are giving every week.
“I think some of them are becoming men. When you put them in you don’t know how they’re going to handle it, and there have been occasions where one or two have been brushed off the ball rather easily.
“But I think they are getting both physically and mentally stronger all the time. The main thing for myself and the backroom team is that they learn from their mistakes, and I’m definitely seeing an improvement in that.”