Hearts, Robbie Neilson and the disastrous 11 minutes, substantial boos, 12-point swing and St Mirren's beauty
It started in the 51st minute. A cross from wide and former Hibs midfielder Alex Gogic got his head to it but couldn't steer it near the goal. In the same minute Michael Smith had the ball at his feet on the right-hand side, half-way up the Hearts half. The Northern Irishman, pulling on the maroon jersey for the 200th competitive match, looked up to assess his options. Just as team-mates had found out in the first half, there was little to aim for. Nothing even. That split second to have a look saw him take his eye off the ball ever so slightly, prompting a loose touch which led to a low shot from Tony Watt which was saved down low by Ross Stewart, making his second start of the season with Zander Clark injured.
In the 52nd minute, St Mirren led. A simple long ball in the direction of Curtis Main, the Buddies’ battering ram of a forward. Maligned at times but if you are a defender in Scottish football not prepared for his qualities he is an absolute menace. Such a ball is a favourite of Stephen Robinson’s side. It turns defences and puts them under pressure. Hearts defender Kye Rowles failed to deal with it, losing its flight. Main was right beside him. Right beside him to zip a lovely left-footed effort into the far corner. Boos from the home fans arrived in the 55th minute. Or, that should be returned, for there were boos after 25 minutes with the team directionless. They got louder in the 56th minute. James Hill had possession but was under pressure. He looked for a way out. He sent a pass across his goal towards where he thought Stephen Kingsley was. His team-mate wasn’t there as it drifted out of play.
Fans turned on Neilson
Minute 57. Hearts 0, St Mirren 2. A ball into the box not dealt with. It dropped to Mark O’Hara, who sent a deflected effort high into the net. It was a goal which brought out the anger, the frustration, the disappointment of the Tynecastle support. More than 18,600 in the ground. Many turned on Robbie Neilson. The call was for him to leave. Only it was expletive-ridden and far from polite. He responded with a double change and a switch to 3-5-2. Jorge Grant played in Alex Cochrane in the 60th minute but the substitute fired over.
The game was over as a contest in the 62nd minute. St Mirren once again transitioned quickly, Main doing ever so well to keep a ball in play and race deep into the Hearts half, only to be upended by Robert Snodgrass. Only, Snodgrass was already on a booking and the second arrived.
Hearts had already long dropped to fourth in the cinch Premiership. They had barely kicked off when Aberdeen had taken the lead at home to Kilmarnock. If you were expecting a reaction following the defeat to Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, there wasn’t one. The first-half performance was largely insipid. This result now brings the Buddies further into the equation. It also completed a quite remarkable turnaround. After Hearts had defeated Dundee United in February they were sitting seven points clear in third. Ten points ahead of Aberdeen. Now they trail the Dons by two points with St Mirren one behind, Hibs five but with a game in hand and an Edinburgh derby to play next week.
You can only ponder what has happened? From cruising towards another European tour, to a mutinous home crowd, the loudest boos meeting the manager’s presence in the centre circle at full-time as he offered an applause. This is a team which has completely and utterly lost its way and the worst run since Daniel Stendel, a season which ended in relegation.
On the flipside, there is a degree of sympathy for the visitors. Excellent but reduced to the undercard with Hearts and Neilson the protagonists. St Mirren are heading for the highest top-flight finish since the mid-1980s. Robinson, who kicked every single ball on the sidelines, has built an effective, productive squad. Smart recruitment, a clear plan and identity. They switched Hearts before kick-off. They then didn’t give them a chance to play from deep. Robert Snodgrass was a target in possession, St Mirren winning back possession twice from him. And it was clear their plan was working by the tenth minute when the first big groan from the home support arrived as Kingsley looked up to see no options and had to retreat.
They are robust, direct, well-organised, hard working. Four qualities that ensure you can not only survive but thrive in Scottish football. They don't try to be clever or smart or overplay. They leave that for the final third. They are good at it and there is a beauty to it. They may not be everyone’s cup of tea but they are good full stop. They have good players. They deserve to be where they are. Top six but they should be looking ahead. Europe is absolutely within their limits, especially with their home form and how uncomfortable they make it for teams.
Hearts found that to their detriment. Only they made it uncomfortable for themselves with another afternoon where they lacked direction and were far too slow and predictable. It is set to be a huge and intriguing week in EH11, culminating in a Saturday afternoon trip to Leith.
Hearts (4-2-3-1) – Stewart; Smith, Hill, Rowles, Kingsley; Devlin, Halliday; Forrest, Snodgrass, Grant; Shankland.
St Mirren (3-5-2) – Carson; Fraser, Shaughnessy, Dunne; Strain, Baccus, Gogic, O’Hara, Small; Main, Watt.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.