STEVIE May’s first-half winner denied Hearts the chance to chip away the first small chunk of their 15-point penalty as they opened their Scottish Premiership campaign with defeat to St Johnstone.
The Edinburgh club start the season in negative figures and unable to sign new players following their administration crisis.
And the aftermath of the financial meltdown has stripped Gary Locke’s squad of depth and quality and they were no match for a confident St Johnstone side still flying high from their Europa League adventures.
May, who has already opened his account for the season after netting against Norwegian league leaders Rosenborg 10 days ago, struck again after 26 minutes with a low curling effort to give the McDiarmid men their opening three points.
But the Jambos threatened rarely and the scale of the survival fight in front of them is now glaringly apparent.
While Hearts have been forced to battle for their very existence after they were plunged into administration with debts nearing £30million, Saints have gone from strength to strength.
Their unbeaten start to their European campaign has already taken care of the former Champions League quarter-finalists from Trondheim and put them on course for the play-off round as they lead FC Minsk 1-0 ahead of Thursday’s second leg.
But the start of the new Premiership season offered the Gorgie men a chance to refocus on football matters and the visitors to Perth brought with them a 3,500-strong away support.
However, a turgid opening 15 minutes successfully quelled the buoyant pre-match atmosphere the Maroon hordes had created.
May headed wide after 19 minutes for the hosts while Callum Paterson was also off-target with a volley at the other end as the action gradually livened up.
The travelling Hearts faithful found their voice once more as they demanded a penalty when Ryan Stevenson appeared to be brought down by Steven Anderson as he made his way into the box but referee Steven McLean waved the play on.
But it was the home support who were in raptures midway through the half as May curled home the opener.
Brad MacKay gifted possession to striker Steven MacLean in the left-hand corner and the former Aberdeen striker laid it off for May at the corner of the box before the 20-year-old set himself and then swept a low finish into the far corner.
The goal was almost not given as linesman Graham McNeillie flagged for offside against David Wotherspoon as he made a late run across the goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald’s line of vision but referee McLean ruled the midfielder had not interfered and gave May’s strike the okay.
A second nearly arrived three minutes before the break when MacDonald had to react brilliantly to push over Anderson’s header from a Wotherspoon corner.
Hearts - with just MacDonald, Stevenson and Jamie Hamill aged over 21 - needed to show maturity in the face of heavy Saints pressure but it was schoolboy defending which allowed Anderson to go free at the back post before he wasted a headed chance from Tam Scobbie’s fine free-kick.
Their 20-year-old left-back Kevin McHattie then survived a handball claim as he slipped in the box while attempting to divert May’s low cross five minutes after the restart.
Saints created another decent opening on 56 minutes as Chris Millar slipped in MacLean. The striker rolled the ball under keeper MacDonald towards but three Hearts players were on duty on the goalline to crowd out May as he attempted to barge it over.
MacDonald was to thank soon after as dived low to push away MacLean’s header after a deflected May strike broke for him five yards out.
Hearts continued to graft but their fresh-faced side toiled in the final third as Saints stood firm for the win.
Goals: St Johnstone: May (26)
Bookings: Davidson (St Johnstone, persistent infringement); Hamill (Hearts, dissent)
Ref: S McLean