Hearts ground out their first away win of the season in unspectacular fashion to lift themselves into the top half of the SPL. Wins on the road like this would be required for the remainder of the season if the Jambos had hopes of mounting a title challenge rather than fighting it out over relegation.
Their victory over a gritty but grim St Mirren side was not without controversy, referee John Underhill upsetting the home side with a series of contentious decisions, but it was just about deserved.
With both teams deploying 4-5-1 formations, this was never likely to be high on entertainment value and there was a flat atmosphere inside Love Street for much of the afternoon.
Hearts looked to provide support to their solitary front man Christian Nade through Andrew Driver and Audrius Ksanavicius pushing forward when in possession in the St Mirren half, but their approach was generally just as cautious if often more cultured. St Mirren struggled to test Hearts’ debutant goalkeeper, Anthony Basso, who was deputising for the ill Steve Banks. Signed from Auxerre on the final day of the previous transfer window, Basso did flap unconvincingly at one Franco Miranda free-kick and was later berated from the sidelines by manager Stephen Frail for a ludicrous attempt to dribble the ball out of his area which was almost punished by Stewart Kean.
He was also culpable for the goal which gave St Mirren hope of a late comeback, Mark Corcoran punishing Basso’s error to head home after Driver and Michael Stewart, with a softly awarded penalty, had put Hearts in control. Substitute Andrius Velicka safeguarded the victory by adding a late third goal for Hearts.
The eccentric Basso was perhaps fortunate not to have to face a penalty kick when the match was still deadlocked in the first half. Eggert Jonsson appeared to make contact with Stephen O’Donnell as the St Mirren midfielder burst into the area, but referee Underhill waved play on. It was a reprieve Hearts made full use of, taking the lead five minutes before half-time. Stewart’s corner eluded everyone to find Driver at the back post and his fierce low first-time shot gave goalkeeper Graeme Smith no chance.
Jose Goncalves then survived a claim for handball against him in the penalty area, the referee further infuriating the home supporters with his failure to spot the offence. Just a minute later, the official did point to the spot at the other end. Stewart tumbled under the merest hint of a challenge from David van Zanten and the Hearts midfielder got up to send Smith the wrong way from the spot.
It ought to have made victory comfortable for Hearts, but they could not have legislated for Basso’s inability to cope with cross balls which was finally exposed by St Mirren when a cross was completely missed by the keeper to allow substitute Corcoran to head into an empty net 12 minutes from time.
St Mirren’s notions of salvaging a point from the match were dispelled just five minutes later, however, when Hearts restored their two-goal cushion.
Velicka, who had just replaced the tiring Nade, was sent free down the left by Driver’s through ball and the Lithuanian striker surged into the penalty area and toe-poked a clever low shot between Smith and his near post.