HEARTS are halfway through their first season back in the Premiership and you could have called this game the second of an impromptu triangular tournament to gauge who might finish second.
Last week, the Jambos lost at Aberdeen. Yesterday they grabbed a point in Perth which, under the circumstances, was a good result.
Juanma Delgado’s straight red card for violent conduct forced his team to play with ten men for an hour. David Wotherspoon was the victim, the Spanish striker appearing to butt him, although the Hearts manager Robbie Neilson called the decision “harsh”.
“At the time I didn’t think it was a red,” he said. “It was two players coming together. Juanma led with his body and I didn’t think there was any follow-up head movement. I haven’t seen the pictures yet but if I’m wrong I apologise to the referee and the fourth official who made the decision.”
But Saints manager Tommy Wright reckoned the punishment was merited. “There was a movement,” he said, “and you can’t do that.”
Wright had warned his players about the need for cool heads against Hearts. “We looked at their last game where there were 29 fouls and spoke about the need to be disciplined. I don’t think he [Juanma] can have any complaint. He had a nibble at Steven Anderson in the very first minute, a wee kick. Maybe he was too pumped up.”
In the earlier match, the season opener at Tynecastle, Hearts edged it 4-3. Presumably they enjoyed scoring four but there would have been considerable grumpiness at conceding three from such mean ex-defenders as Neilson and Craig Levein, and Hearts have tightened up since.
If you were in the away end in your Santa hat, hoping for goals and thrills and prepared to ride a rollercoaster to get them, you would have been disappointed by Hearts’ sluggish start. Mind you, it was fairly tedious from Saints as well.
Both teams had an eye-catching striker on display. Osman Sow had just been confirmed by the latest testing equipment as the speediest Jambo for many a year, while Michael O’Halloran told the match programme: “I’m lucky to be blessed with pace [but] you can always be faster.” O’Halloran’s first contribution here, though, was to trip over the ball and while Sow managed the first shot on target, it was a timid effort.
Midway through the first half Saints tried to enliven the drabness with a series of corners and Neil Alexander looked uncertain. Then referee Kevin Clancy got in the way of a threatening Saints move.
Murray Davidson had said his team were “ready for a battle” against a “big, physical side” but it hadn’t been that kind of game, or indeed any sort of game, and then suddenly it was. Juanma and Wotherspoon clashed In the 27th minute. The St Johnstone man, on the ground, appeared to kick out at the striker. Juanma’s use of the head seemed to be confirmed by Callum Paterson’s reaction, with the wing-back raging at his team-mate, which was noted by Wright. Meanwhile Neilson and Liam Craig had a full and frank exchange of views.
St Johnstone exerted more pressure and Wright was pleased with the number of chances they ultimately created and thought his side deserved the victory. But a feature of the game, or a non-feature, was the poor quality of crosses.
Saints could have won it in the 77th minute. A quick Craig throw-in panicked substitute Miguel Pallardo into fouling another replacement, Chris Kane, but Steven MacLean blasted the penalty over the bar. It seemed to sum up the afternoon. The home team continued to search for the winner but Alexander kept them out, and a gutsy point was greeted by the Hearts faithful like a win.
St Johnstone (4-4-2): Mannus; Fisher, Mackay, Anderson, Easton; O’Halloran, Wotherspoon, Davidson, Craig; Sutton, MacLean.
70: Kane for Sutton
84: Saughnessy for Fisher
Unused subs: Clark, Scobbie, McKay, Caddis, Thomson.
Hearts (4-4-2): Alexander; Paterson, Augustyn, Rossi, Oshaniwa; Nicholson, Djoum, Gomis, Buaben; Sow, Juanma.
70: Pallardo for Buaben
75: Reilly for Sow
87: McGhee for Djoum
Unused subs: Hamilton, Ozturk, King, Swanson.
Referee: Kevin Clancy.