Listing the positives on a day when Hearts scored five goals for the first time in more than three years, three goals for the first time in more than a year and won at home for the first time in seven months, Austin MacPhee earned the right to sidestep the defensive frailties which led to the concession of two poor goals against a side propping up the league.
Well aware of the importance of the match to the team’s fortunes and his own career advancement, he always knew it was a day when the mood would be set by the attacking options.
Still missing holding midfielders Peter Haring and Glenn Whelan and first-choice centre-backs John Souttar and Craig Halkett, the Hearts interim boss was able to welcome back both Jamie Walker and Steven Naismith. They last joined forces in a starting line-up on the second day of the league season, way back on 10 August, and although striker Conor Washington is still sidelined, their presence meant there was certainly more forward intent.
Five goals from five different scorers underlines the task faced by St Mirren, who ultimately weren’t up to the job of coralling all the threats. They tested Hearts’ resilience by coming back at them, not once but twice, as Jon Obika cancelled out Naismith’s sixth-minute opener in the 21st minute and then Danny Mullen did the same two minutes after Uche Ikpeazu’s tenacity and strength had prompted a 30th-minute Sean McLoughlin own goal.
Obika was gifted far too much space to score St Mirren’s first goal from close range, while Mullen was allowed through one on one following a misjudgment by Christophe Berra, who failed to deal with a long ball upfield from Paisley keeper Vaclav Hladky.
But Hearts just kept coming at their guests and, with headed goals by Ollie Bozanic and Walker, either side of half-time, and a stunning curled effort into the postage stamp corner of Hladky’s goal by substitute Jake Mulraney – another attacking alternative returning from an injury lay-off, albeit with the aid of painkillers – they succeeded in giving the home fans some respite from the angst and acrimony that has pervaded for too long and enhanced MacPhee’s chances of advancing his position, as either the permanent manager or new sporting director.
MacPhee, left, is already targeting a swift scaling of the league, as he eyes a Europa League spot and Mulraney sees no reason why, with so many players now returning from injuries, that shouldn’t be the case.
“The boys definitely agree with that. You can see that we have got the quality to do it. We just have to do it over and over again,” said Mulraney.
Knowing the aims, MacPhee took measures to ensure Hearts were also well-versed on the gameplan, taking the squad away to St Andrews for a few days last week for some concentrated schooling. It paid off, according to the Irishman. “He’s done a lot with us to be fair,” added Mulraney.
“The boys enjoy working with him. He always has a tempo to training, he’s enthusiastic, a lot of passion and a good football brain. He’s helped us a lot this week.
“It was a little bit more structural, if that makes sense. We knew what we had to do, we worked on it the whole week, had loads of meetings on it and were really clear on what we had to do. It has [been like that, previously] in ways but I think as opposed to doing it for two days or three days, we’re doing it seven. Going away was definitely good.”
But, enjoying only the second league win of the Premiership season, Mulraney paid tribute to onfield leadership as much as managerial nous, with Naismith, who is now expected to lead the Scotland line, a pivotal figure. “His presence on the pitch, it’s unbelievable. Look at him. He’s never quiet. He’s always talking people through games, egging people on, passing on information,” said Mulraney.
“It’s massive. He was at the very top so his standards are way up there. He wants people to do things right, run hard – and that’s just him.”
And, he revealed that a conversation between the pair on Friday was revisited as they celebrated Mulraney’s 76th-minute wonder strike.
“Me and Naisy were speaking because I need to add goals to my game. And a few more assists,” said Mulraney.
“The conversation was actually about assists, well he was talking about assists, I was talking about goals. So, after I scored, we had a chat in the little huddle because he’d assisted me – and the plan was for me to provide assists for him!”