It has been six years since Hearts have featured in the final eight of the Scottish Cup but, in ousting St Johnstone, they have taken another step closer to a Hampden return.
If the Tynecastle side lost the midfield when these two teams squared up in the league last week, they weren’t going to make the same mistake again. Arnaud Djoum enjoyed one of his finest days in maroon and pulled the strings, while Ross Callachan was not willing to give any ground, Joaquim Adao mopped everything up and bright, young thing Anthony MacDonald continued to excite.
Combined, they consigned St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright to an afternoon of disappointment. But the biggest source of exasperation was his own team, who gifted Hearts a two-goal lead and effectively dumped themselves out the cup.
“Ultimately when you give away two goals like we did you can’t win a football match. I don’t know what Joe is doing at the first, we worked on throw-ins yesterday and the idea certainly wasn’t to throw it in at Murray Davidson on a bobbly pitch.”
The throw ins had actually given Hearts some problems in the early part of the match, with both Christophe Berra and then Aaron Hughes struggling to deal with the long deliveries into the danger zone but his seventh minute effort allowed Djoum to nick in ahead of Davidson and nod it forward to Kyle Lafferty, who drove it past Alan Mannus.
“Kyle’s first goal was a fantastic finish,” said Craig Levein, who was able to delight in the finishes that followed as well, such were their quality. “Arnaud had his best game of the season. He’s had problems injury-wise and is only just getting up to full speed. I think that showed. But he was more prominent than he has been for a while. He stole the ball, played Kyle through and it was a ridiculously tight angle on his left side.”
Against a team like Hearts, who are proving so adept at keeping clean sheets - this was their 10th in the last 12 games - and who have made no secret of their desire to progress in the cup this season, especially as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1998 triumph, Wright knew that early goal was a brutal blow. It was one they never recovered for.
In a tight first half a decent chance fell to Scott Tanser but from then on opportunities were few and far between for the visitors as Hearts gradually took the reins and if there was any ambiguity in anyone’s mind, the second goal in the 53th minute was the knockout blow.
“We lose the ball, they counter attack and score a wonder goal and we’re 2-0 down,” bemoaned Wright. “It was a wonderful finish and it was a good finish from Lafferty as well. But the two situations shouldn’t arise. That’s why we’re out of the cup, we’ve made mistakes again.”
“Deme had been unlucky not to score for us before,” said Levein of his on-loan full-back who had come close against both Hibernian and Motherwell.. “I was right behind it, that was beautiful to watch. As soon as it left his foot, it was going in the top corner. The biggest thing for me is the delight on his face when he scored. Football is a great game when you see kids doing something like that and feeling good about themselves. It made me smile.”
Mitchell, along with Michael Smith on the opposing flank had galloped up and down the park all afternoon, as influential in attack as defence and when Djoum has made it down the right and looked up to see Mitchell on the charge, his crossfield pass gave the 21-year-old the time to pick out the postage stamp corner of Mannus’s goal.
The third goal came four minutes later and it was the overlapping Smith, who linked up with Callachan before playing the square pass in for Laffert to finish from close range.
With more than 30 minutes remaining there must have been apprehension on the Saints bench and as things began to grow testy, with frustration eating away at the guests, both managers would probably have been happy to hear the final whistle at that stage.
Levein will have wanted to avoid any injuries to his men who were giving no quarter as the battle turned physical and thwart the threat of bookings as he looked ahead to the quarter-final and beyond. St Johnstone, aware there was no way back, just looked like they would rather be anywhere else.