Hearts go into Tuesday’s Edinburgh derby ahead of rivals Hibs in the league table for the first time this season. However, there were no chants of “bring on the Hibees” at Murrayfield as the hosts survived a war of attrition with an out-of-form St Johnstone side.
This was a match to be endured rather than enjoyed. There was no flow to proceedings, just a succession of aimless long punts, defensive headers, slack passes and glaringly obvious fouls. The cavernous surroundings of Murrayfield would not have helped matters, as 18,500 supporters failed to rouse their heroes into life. The sooner Hearts can secure permanent residence in the newly refurbished Tynecastle the better.
The fact that two young players – John Souttar and half-time substitute Harry Cochrane – shared the two man-of-the-match awards provided some positives among the home ranks. Manager Craig Levein was also content to see the end of an eight-game hoodoo against their opponents. If they can do likewise on Tuesday, nobody will be talking about the quality of performance.
“Doggedness is what we need for every match, whether it’s a derby or not,” said Levein when asked about his team’s fighting qualities. “The more determined you are the better chance you’ve got. You can’t always guarantee you’ll play well, but if you can be really difficult to beat on the days that you don’t play well, like today, then you can win. I thought we deserved to win, although we didn’t play well, because we had much more pressure in their area and had a lot more shots than they did.”
The most interesting aspect of the first half was the novelty of centre-back John Souttar being on corner duty. He wasn’t half bad at it either. His first, on 17 minutes, found Kyle Lafferty in the centre. The striker had to run back toward the ball and twist his neck to send it goalward, which would have contributed to the lack of accuracy and power as it harmlessly drifted wide.
There was a brief flurry of activity later in the half with Esmael Goncalves showing off a bit of skill in the penalty area before squaring for Jamie Walker. The midfielder managed to squeeze through a crowd of players but saw his shot blocked at the front post. From the resulting corner, Souttar again found a Hearts head, this time his centre-back partner Christophe Berra. The captain directed his finish down into the ground and goalkeeper Alan Mannus had to be alert to tip it over.
As for the visitors, they might have found more joy if they had Souttar taking their set-pieces. Stefan Scougall, normally proficient in that aspect of the game, wasted a few promising opportunities, including a free-kick from the side of the penalty area which barely got off the ground.
That foul had been conceded by Prince Buaben, who endured the roughest first half of all, and the Ghanaian found himself left behind in the changing room for the start of the second period, replaced by the 16-year-old Cochrane.
The game briefly threatened to spark itself into life at the start of the second half as Hearts created a couple of chances. David Milinkovic lashed a volley high over the bar from the edge of the penalty area, before Goncalves finished a counter-attack by shooting straight at Mannus.
A short time later Saints had their best chance of the afternoon, with David Wotherspoon being left alone on the wing following a corner. The ex-Hibs midfielder cut inside on to his stronger right foot but fired his shot straight at Jon McLaughlin in the Hearts goal.
The action, if you could describe this game in such strong terms, cooled once more before Hearts finally broke the deadlock with just over 15 minutes remaining.
Often spectacular goals are described as being worthy of winning any game. Well, Kyle Lafferty’s effort was worthy only of winning a contest as ugly as this one. When Ross Callachan’s effort was blocked the ball rolled free 35 yards from goal. Rather optimistically, Cochrane decided to shoot. He had little chance of scoring, but sometimes just having a pop is enough to create a positive outcome, and that’s exactly what happened. Lafferty was able to control the daisy-cutter inside the penalty area before spinning and shooting for goal. The hurried strike took a wicked deflection off Joe Shaughnessy, wrong-footed Mannus and spun into the back of the net.
Cochrane had the chance to add to the scoring himself deep into stoppage time, but his low drive bounced back off the outside of the post just before the full-time whistle sounded.