Hearts 5 - 2 St Mirren: Austin MacPhee guides Hearts to first home league win in seven months

Steven Naismith celebrates the opener on his return to the starting line-up.
Steven Naismith celebrates the opener on his return to the starting line-up.
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He wanted a bright start, he wanted to see greater team unity and he has made it pretty clear that he would like a more elevated position at the club, whether that be manager or sporting director.

The fact that the Hearts players delivered on his first two wishes to secure their first home league win in more than seven months and edge away from the relegation zone may offer greater credence to interim boss Austin MacPhee’s position as one of the bookmakers’ favourites to take over from Craig Levein on a permanent basis.

His tactics and team selection were questioned in his first run-out, in the Betfred Cup semi-final against Rangers, and this clash was a must-win.

To prepare, he had removed the players from their regular environment, looking to work on togetherness and tactics in St Andrews. Whether that was the key or whether it was the return of playmakers, finishers and leaders such as Jamie Walker, Jake Mulraney and Steven Naismith, who was making his first league start since August but wasted no time in settling into his role as on-field orchestrator, we may never know. But getting on to the front foot early definitely helped, and with Naismith up front, there was a more clinical edge to the attack.

The forward, who could be tasked with leading the line for Scotland when he meets up with Steve Clarke’s side this week in search of his 50th cap, made a swift impact, and although it was the perfect demonstration of his hunger to deliver and quality, St Mirren were left kicking themselves at the space he was given as he burst free to slam an Andy Irving corner past Vaclav Hladky.

That was just six minutes into the game and while there were plenty of goals and some ups and downs in between, his assist to gift Mulraney the opportunity to wrap up the scoring 70 minutes later signalled his importance to the team.

In the end the side saw out the game in comfort, turning a tit-for-tat first half into a more one-way affair after the interval. Defensively they offered their visitors more hope than was wise but ultimately they had the attacking quality and resilience to see it through.

Having opened the scoring, MacPhee’s men were pegged back not once but twice as their frailties at the back were exposed. Jon Obika was left in space in the 21st minute and just yards from goal. In a central position and with the Hearts backline appealing futilely for offside, he found the net.

The capital side restored their lead eight minutes later when Naismith flicked on a throw-in and Uche Ikpeazu used his strength at the byeline and got off a shot which was headed into his own goal by the unfortunate Sean McLoughlin.

But Hearts proved they can be just as generous when captain Christophe Berra made a hash of trying to clear a Hladky long ball up field and Danny Mullen darted on to it to finish with aplomb.

At that moment there was scope for the restlessness in the stands, which has rarely been far from the surface this season, to spill out, but the presence of Naismith and Walker tends to imbue the Gorgie punters with a bit more belief.

Causing problems up front, they were also gaining a better control of the midfield as players displayed a greater willingness to show for each other, battled for second balls and looked for options to quickly switch defence into attack. St Mirren tried to stand firm but in the 42nd minute the home side grabbed a third goal, to head in at the break in the lead.

This time it was Michael Smith who swung in the cross and Oliver Bozanic rose higher than anyone else to bullet a header past Hladky.

The positive start to the first half was replicated after the break. Smith was again the provider but this time it was Jamie Walker who pounced. Making his first start since mid-August he revelled in a central role and when the ball was pinged in just a minute after the restart, he headed past Hladky.

Hearts took a firm grip on proceedings and wrapped things up with a superb goal from Mulraney with just over ten minutes remaining. Back in the side ahead of schedule after his recent ankle injury, the Irishman was teed up by Naismith and curled a perfect strike into the stamp corner of the net.