GARY Locke has been saying for months that his team will not go down without a battle. Yesterday they looked down and out with just two minutes left but they still had plenty of fight left.
Scorers: St Johnstone - May (39 pen, 49, 62 pen); Hearts - Carrick (58), Nicholson (89), Wilson (90)
In the 88th minute substitute Sam Nicholson tried and tried again to beat the St Johnstone goalkeeper Alan Mannus and when the sliced shot found the net and Hearts attempted a quick retrieval, mayhem ensued. A fracas kicked-off, where players were bundled up in the net, others pushed and shoved and in amongst it all punches were thrown.
“I tried to split one up but realised that they were all too strong,” said Nicholson, whose first goal for the club had sparked the melee. “I think it was Tam Scobbie, Callum Paterson and Brad [McKay] and they were all too strong and I realised I couldn’t do anything.”
“In those situations we should have walked away,” said St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright. Had his men done so they might have held out for the win their play up until then had deserved. “But it’s difficult, Alan saw three or four Hearts players trampling over Fraser and he gets involved.”
Ryan Stevenson and Mannus were deemed the biggest villains and as they headed down the tunnel, with all the substitutes already used, St Johnstone defender Tam Scobbie was left to don the goalkeeper’s top.
With four minutes added on, that gave Hearts the chance to pepper the home goal with as many efforts as they could muster in the hope of getting at least one point closer to wiping out the 15 point deficit imposed on them at the start of the campaign.
Moments later, Callum Paterson’s header crashed back off the crossbar and then another shot scooted just wide of the post. But when another of Hearts’ subs, Billy King, swung in a corner, captain Danny Wilson rose to head into the top corner, out of the makeshift keeper’s reach. It was a climax St Johnstone striker Stevie May could only describe as “surreal”. The 21-year-old had been the major talking point of a match that had already contributed the 21st-minute sending off of Steven Anderson, a decision Wright says the club will definitely be appealing, and the half-time departure of midfielder Murray Davidson in an ambulance after he sustained a knee injury.
But even with those setbacks the home side had been the more dominant, thanks primarily to the finishing ability of May.
With three goals he wrapped up his second hat-trick in the space of three weeks and moved to joint top of the SPFL scoring charts, ramping up the pressure to see him included in the full Scotland set-up.
The first was a penalty, awarded in the 39th minute after Kevin McHattie tugged at Nigel Hasselbaink. The referee took his time pointing to the spot and Locke insisted afterwards he got it wrong. The Tynecastle boss said the challenge had come outside the area but May made no mistake with the conversion, going low to Jamie MacDonald’s right.
If Locke was miffed at that, it was nothing compared to his Perth counterpart who said he had requested a meeting with the referee and was adamant that Anderson’s red card should be overturned. It was shown after Carrick was bundled over but, 35 yards from goal and the ball being pushed wide, the decision seemed harsh.
But even with a numerical disadvantage, St Johnstone were in control. In the 50th minute, May latched on to a Hasselbaink pass and burst through one-on-one with MacDonald. The keeper temporarily halted progress and there was a claim for handball as the grounded May tried to see the loose ball over line. Wilson and McKay both tried to get back but amid the guddle, they failed. May then added another spotkick in the 63rd minute and this time there were no complaints, with McHattie culpable once again, handling the ball, in the box.
But unwilling to accept their fate no matter how gloomy it looks, Hearts had already started the comeback through Dale Carrick. Making his first league start last week, he got his first goal for the club yesterday. It came in the 59th minute after he got on the end of McHattie’s cross. But St Johnstone still looked comfortable. That was until they lost the next goal, went down to nine men and had to put an outfield player in goal.
“I’m disappointed to lose two points,” said Wright. “We were by far the better team even when down to ten men. It’s always difficult going down to nine men and no goalkeeper.” But if he was gutted, the Hearts manager was delighted with his side’s battling qualities.
“I can’t be any prouder of our players. You saw the spirit we have in the camp. We never give up. It’s a young squad but the character is tremendous.”
But he stressed that there was more important things than football. “Although it was a great game, everyone at Heart of Midlothian’s thoughts go out to the St Johnstone kitman [Tommy Campbell] who has had a suspected heart attack.”
It later emerged, thankfully, that Campbell was on the mend but staying in hospital for observation.