WHAT goes around comes around, as they say. Five weeks after a soft penalty had earned his team progress in the William Hill Scottish Cup at St Johnstone’s expense, Paulo Sergio claimed that his Hearts team were victims of two refereeing mistakes at McDiarmid Park yesterday.
He said an offside decision was missed in the build-up to St Johnstone’s equaliser by Murray Davidson, and that Cillian Sheridan’s high foot had struck Danny Grainger ahead of Francisco Sandaza’s match-winning penalty, but both grievances missed the point.
There was no mention of Marius Zaliukas, whose intervention had cost his team a penalty for the second week in succession, and this time it was significant. Sandaza’s conversion from the spot means that Hearts have still not secured their place in the top six.
St Johnstone, by contrast, are home and dry. Against an understrength Hearts side, it wasn’t their best performance but if they can beat Inverness on Wednesday night, they will be within five points of third-placed Motherwell. “Fourth place is the aim,” said their manager, Steve Lomas. “It is going to be difficult, but I wouldn’t bet against us.”
With extensive injury problems to deal with, Sergio chose to rest many of his players. Jamie Hamill, Rudi Skacel and Ian Black were on the bench, while Craig Beattie failed a late fitness test. Gary Glen was the lone striker, Jason Holt was given his first start in midfield, and Darren Barr was stationed in front of the back four. When Zaliukas dithered in his own box, causing the Hearts goalkeeper to slice past his own post, you wondered if Barr would not have been better deployed in central defence.
Holt proved to be a lively addition, hooking an early shot over, then emerging from an otherwise listless opening period to grab the opening goal. When Robinson fed Ryan McGowan wide on the right, the Australian full-back swept a low ball across the box, which the 19-year-old midfielder caught perfectly. His first-time, right-foot shot sprung in off the base of the right-hand post.
It was hard on St Johnstone, who had given as good as they got, but the equaliser wasn’t long in coming. Ten minutes before half-time, Davidson timed his run into the box so well that he didn’t have to connect particularly well with Dave Mackay’s low cross to send the ball skittering into the bottom corner.
The impression that this was a shadow Hearts side was compounded by the substitution of Jamie MacDonald, their goalkeeper. After sustaining an injury, he was pulled off at half-time to let Mark Ridgers, on loan at East Fife earlier this season, make his debut for the club.
His was a gentle introduction to the fray, punctuated only by the odd scare. Sandaza embarked on a mazy run that split two defenders before his shot was deflected over. Then Sheridan missed the target from the edge of the penalty area.
In the second half, Hearts did most of the pressing, but Scott Robinson’s shot, saved by Alan Mannus, was the best of their efforts, and when Sandaza went over Zaliukas’s leg at the other end, St Johnstone had their chance to equalise. After a long delay, in which Grainger was booked for protesting, Sandaza found the middle of the net with a spot-kick rammed high above the diving goalkeeper.
The St Johnstone striker, whose team complained last month about the late penalty that took their Scottish Cup fifth-round replay against Hearts into extra time, said that his opponents had been guilty of gamesmanship as he waited to take this one. “It was not fair play,” he said. “I didn’t like it. They tried to dig up the spot, and they were saying ‘you’re going to miss it’.”
In the 13 minutes that remained, substitute Chris Millar headed a Sandaza cross over the bar, and Liam Craig slapped wide a cutback by Lee Croft, but it was Hearts, and Glen in particular, who came closest. First, he popped up at the back post to rattle a shot off the upright, then he latched on to a long ball and clipped it just wide. “With all the difficulties we are having, it was very disappointing to lose,” said Sergio. “We didn’t deserve it at all.”