Scottish Cup: Hearts 1 - 1 St Johnstone: Low skill a factor as Hearts and Saints serve up drab stalemate

HEARTS were a goal and a man to the good with 15 minutes to play in this Scottish Cup fifth-round tie, and had the possession which should have allowed them to see the match out and take their place in the last eight.

Instead, they have it all to do again after substitute Cillian Sheridan’s late equaliser, and will need to show far more spirit in the replay if they are to go through.

Some draws are fair because neither side deserved to lose, others because neither deserved to win. This came into the latter category, and whoever eventually progresses to the quarter-finals, it can only be hoped that there is more football at McDiarmid Park tomorrow week than there was here.

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Most of the skill that was on display came from David Templeton, who scored the opening goal and was a persistent threat to the St Johnstone defence. Ryan McGowan and Ian Black also played well for the home side, but on balance this Hearts team looked closer to the one which lost at Inverness 15 days earlier than to the one which won five games out of six not so long ago. Hearts’ build-up play was decent, especially during a spell in the second half in which they threatened to extend their lead, but they created few clear-cut chances. They had a plausible claim for a penalty in that spell, when Dave Mackay appeared to handle in the box, but referee Craig Thomson either failed to spot it or ruled that the contact had been unintentional.

Mackay was booked for dissent a couple of minutes after that incident, then picked up a second yellow for dangerous play with 17 minutes left. But St Johnstone were not dejected by the loss of the defender, and after Sheridan had levelled they were the livelier side.

One slight consolation for Hearts is that at least they fared better than they did in last year’s fourth-round tie, when they lost at home to the same opponents at the first time of asking. That match was a drab affair, with substitute Peter MacDonald grabbing a late winner, and this one was little better, despite being coerced into life by Templeton’s tenth-minute opener.

St Johnstone had had slightly the better of a tentative start, but the winger caught them unawares in an attack down the left. Gathering the ball on the edge of the box, he jinked inside, and shot low past a surprised-looking Peter Enckelman, who would have been entitled to expect his defence to do more to shut down a scoring opportunity. For their part, the defence would have been equally entitled to expect a more alert response from their goalkeeper.

St Johnstone then pressed forward in greater numbers than they had planned, but made little headway against a well-organised home defence, and did not create another clear opening in the first half. At the other end, Templeton continued to trouble, and David Robertson was booked after a heavy challenge on the goalscorer. Towards half-time Templeton laid on a decent chance with a cut-back, but Scott Robinson miscued his shot, sending it tumbling into Enckelman’s arms.

Sheridan came on for Robertson at the start of the second half as St Johnstone switched from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2, and within a minute he laid on a chance from which Francisco Sandaza should have equalised. The substitute’s chipped cross from the byeline was perfectly weighted, but his fellow striker just failed to get the right angle on his header and it rebounded off the crossbar with MacDonald beaten.

Murray Davidson sent a shot on the run over the bar, and Liam Craig then had a long-range attempt parried by MacDonald, as St Johnstone continued to enjoy a promising start to the second half. A second goal for Hearts at that stage still seemed likely to kill off the game, and they thought they should have been given the chance to score it from 12 yards after the Mackay incident.

Although they were not awarded a penalty, the home side were soon handed an advantage when Mackay was dismissed. When manager Paulo Sergio introduced Mehdi Taouil for Rudi Skacel it looked to be exactly the substitution Hearts needed to run down the clock – but instead of helping his team to victory, the Moroccan immediately played an unwitting role in the equaliser.

Probably the most technically gifted player on the field, Taouil gave away possession with his first touch, allowing the ball to bounce off his shin and into the path of Sandaza. The striker found Sheridan with a low ball into space, and the substitute ran on into the box before stroking the ball past MacDonald.

Belatedly waking up to the fact that there was a match to be won, Hearts finished strongly, and in the closing minutes put St Johnstone under some pressure. Their most promising move came on the verge of stoppage time when Templeton slalomed past three men in the box, but he was off balance by the time he was able to shoot, and could do no more than stab a shot straight at Enckelman.