JOHN Sutton scored one, made the other and otherwise gave his opponents enough trouble at McDiarmid Park yesterday to make you wonder why it has taken him so long to gain a foothold in the Hearts starting line-up.
Scorers: St Johnstone - Vine 16, MacLean 60; Hearts - Sutton 14, Driver 38
The striker has struggled to make an impression at Tynecastle, despite the team’s clear deficiencies up front, but in his second consecutive start, as part of a new 4-4-2 formation, he showed his value here. Without his aerial presence alongside Gordon Smith, they would have lost this one.
Hearts were twice ahead, but John McGlynn, their manager, admitted later that it had been a hard-fought draw. If anyone could be accused of dropping two points, it was St Johnstone, who played the better football, especially in a second half they dominated.
That they did so without four suspended players, three of them first-choice defenders, satisfied Steve Lomas, their manager, who paid tribute to the performance at centre-half of David McCracken, rushed back into the team just over a month after fracturing his cheekbone.
“To play four weeks after having surgery on a triple fracture, which needed plated and screwed back together ... I give him all the credit in the world,” said Lomas. “The one boy you probably didn’t want to come up against was John Sutton, because he is so good in the air, but being the true professional that he is, Dave was absolutely fantastic.”
McGlynn does not appear to have been Sutton’s biggest fan. Hearts have been crying out for a striker, but the manager has been slow to use the former Motherwell player. After Sutton had played up front in last weekend’s 2-0 defeat of Aberdeen, McGlynn bristled at questions about the forward’s previous absence.
Here, Sutton again partnered Gordon Smith up front. And at the end of a bright and breezy first half shaded by St Johnstone, it was he that Hearts had to thank for their slender advantage. Not only did he win the free kick that led to the opening goal, he converted it, rising at the back post to head in the cross by Andy Driver.
That lead lasted less than a minute. Stung by the setback, St Johnstone swept down the right, from where Gary Miller’s low ball spun off Marius Zaliukas and across the six-yard box. Rowan Vine was on hand to knock it over the line from close range.
St Johnstone were the more inventive of the two sides, with Peter Pawlett – making his first start in three months – squandering the best of their first-half chances. The on-loan midfielder had only the goalkeeper to beat after Vine’s delicious flick behind the back four, but his shot came off Jamie MacDonald’s body.
Hearts sought to exploit Sutton with a more direct approach. Seven minutes before the interval, it restored their lead. When Ryan McGowan’s long throw was flicked on by Sutton, Driver stole in at the back post to lash it over the line.
Early in the second half, the tactic almost earned them a third. This time, Driver supplied the cross, Sutton nodded it down and Smith pulled an easy chance wide – the third time he had failed to take advantage.
It proved to be a costly miss. As St Johnstone rediscovered their rhythm, they set up a string of chances. Pawlett was again denied by the goalkeeper, after Murray Davidson had put him through, and Kevin McHattie cleared Steven MacLean’s effort off the line.
Then came their second equaliser. Murray Davidson dashed wide to collect an angled pass before delivering an inviting ball across the box. MacLean, who timed his run perfectly, had the easy task of turning it into the net.
Perhaps seeking some aerial strength of their own, St Johnstone replaced Pawlett with Gregory Tade, who almost scored with his first touch. When he was denied by MacDonald, the ball broke to MacLean, who deflected it goalwards. Just as it looked like trundling over the line, Ryan McGowan stepped in to clear.
By the end of it all, McGlynn was the more relieved of the two managers as Hearts held on for a welcome point.
St Johnstone (4-4-2): Mannus; Miller, McCracken, Scobbie, C Davidson; Pawlett (Tade 69), Cregg, M Davidson, Craig; Vine (Hasselbaink 88), MacLean. Subs: Tuffey, Moon, Beattie, Caddis, Rodger.
Hearts (4-4-2): MacDonald; R McGowan, Webster, Zaliukas, McHattie; Paterson (Novikovas 84), Barr (D McGowan 46), Stevenson, Driver; Sutton, G Smith (Carrick 78). Subs: Enckelman, Walker, Prychynenko, B King.
Referee: William Collum. Attendance: 2974.