HEARTS brought their morale-sapping run of defeats to an end in Paisley on a day when only a stunning intervention from one of their former players denied them a dramatic late victory which would have taken them to the zero-point mark.
Scorers: St Mirren - Thompson (3); Hearts - Hamill (48)
Slovakian goalkeeper Marian Kello, who spent four years at Tynecastle before falling foul of the Vladimir Romanov regime, was the St Mirren hero with an outstanding point-blank save to keep out Callum Paterson’s 92nd-minute shot for the visitors.
A point apiece was a fair outcome on the balance of play, Danny Lennon’s side dominating the first half after taking a second-minute lead through Steven Thompson, while Hearts improved once Jamie Hamill had levelled two minutes into the second half.
Gary Locke’s men remain 13 points adrift at the foot of the Premiership table at the halfway point of the campaign but, in the wake of their 4-0 thrashing by Kilmarnock on Boxing Day, this was a performance which should at least lift their spirits ahead of Thursday night’s derby at Easter Road.
St Mirren were unable to build on their stunning win over Dundee United – their only victory in the last six league matches. Thompson’s 11th goal of the season was a scrappy affair and, from Locke’s perspective, was all too typical of the defensive vulnerability which has plagued his side this season.
They were unable to deal with an inswinging corner kick from the right by Saints midfielder Danny Grainger, the ball finding its way straight back to the former Hearts man. His return delivery into the heart of the six-yard box caused panic among the visiting defenders and Thompson took advantage, poking a shot beyond Jamie MacDonald from close range.
As the home side looked to press home their early advantage, Hearts remained firmly on the back foot. Jason Naismith, the young St Mirren full-back, consistently caught the eye with his powerful runs up the right flank and he forced a fine save from MacDonald in the eighth minute, latching on to Thompson’s clever pass and driving in a low shot which the Hearts goalkeeper did well to divert to safety.
Grainger then saw a netbound shot blocked on the six-yard line by Brad McKay as Hearts struggled to find any forward momentum. They finally mounted a decent counter-attack, Jamie Walker sending a shot over Kello’s crossbar from around 22 yards.
Walker looked the most likely source of inspiration for a side who had scored just one goal in December and he threatened again when he received a quickly-taken free-kick from Hamill and stabbed a shot narrowly wide of Kello’s left hand post. While St Mirren continued to dominate possession and certainly merited their lead at the interval, Hearts could at least take encouragement from their improved level of competitiveness.
Two minutes into the second half, it brought them an equaliser. It was a magnificent strike from Hamill, although St Mirren were guilty of defending every bit as unconvincing as Hearts had been when they went behind. A cross from the left by Walker should have been cleared comfortably, but the ball dropped kindly for Hamill – a target for criticism by some Hearts supporters this season – who thundered a rising right-foot shot beyond Kello from just outside the penalty area.
St Mirren tried to produce an immediate response and they had loud appeals for a penalty rejected by referee Kevin Clancy when a rising shot from Jim Goodwin appeared to be handled by McKay as the defender blocked it. Thompson then missed a glaring opportunity to regain the lead for his side, dragging a shot wide from inside the six-yard box after being picked out by a Naismith cross.
But it was now a more evenly contested affair, with Hearts growing in confidence and carrying greater menace as an attacking force. Scott Robinson fired a shot a couple of feet over Kello’s crossbar, then the lively Walker came agonisingly close to putting the visitors ahead with a low shot narrowly wide of the goalkeeper’s right-hand post.
Neither side were content to settle for a point, ensuring an absorbing end to the match. Sean Kelly should have put Saints back in front when he headed Conor Newton’s cross over from close range but it was Hearts who finished the afternoon in the ascendancy.
Ryan Stevenson, whose return from injury was a significant boost, sent an acrobatic shot just wide in the 90th minute, then Kello denied Hearts what looked like a winner in stoppage time when be brilliantly kept out Paterson’s close-range shot from substitute David Smith’s cross.
St Mirren: Kello, Naismith, McGregor, McAusland (Van Zanten 46), Kelly; Newton, Goodwin, McGinn, Grainger; McGowan (Harkins 81); Thompson. Subs not used: Dilo, Reilly, Cuddihy, Brady, Mair.
Hearts: MacDonald, McGowan, McKay, Wilson, McHattie; Robinson (Smith 79), Hamill, Paterson, Tapping; Stevenson, Walker. Subs not used: Hamilton, Carrick, B King, A King, Nicholson, McGhee.