One day soon Hibernian will read about their endeavours and there will be no more mention of John McGinn, but just not yet. The Leith team’s midfield started out ponderous yesterday, which was never a word used about Aston Villa’s new signing, but after falling behind they were at least able to claim a share of the points.
One feature of the match was the square-up between scorers of two Champions League wonder goals who then struggled to live up to these shining moments. Tony Watt’s career has drifted since becoming the hero of a victory over Barcelona as a Celtic kid. But, making his home debut for St Johnstone, he was at least involved in the goal with which St Johnstone made the breakthrough.
Daryl Horgan, whose showreel highlight was for Dundalk against Zenit St Petersburg, had struggled to make an impact at Preston North End but the Irishman brought some burly endeavour to Hibs’ efforts as a second-half substitute although he couldn’t quite win the game for the club he joined the previous day.
New heroes will eventually emerge for Hibs, just not yet, although if it’s any consolation to the Easter Road team, they couldn’t win in Perth last season, even with McGinn.
There was a leaner look to McDiarmid Park yesterday, unfortunately extending to the sparseness of the crowd on such a dreich afternoon. The match programme was thinner, having been scaled back to what the editor called the “essentials”. The home side were lean, too - a younger outfit than has represented the club in recent seasons, manager Tommy Wright have overhauled the team in an attempt to reclaim the top six spot which until last term had seemed the Saintees as of right.
It would have been essential for the home side to have got something from the game, having lost on the opening day at Kilmarnock when the severely dischuffed Wright had claimed they lacked bravery and been unable to pass the ball ten yards.
From the opposition beforehand there had been much talk of love. McGinn’s farewell message to Easter Road thanked the club for nurturing and developing him, signing off with the hope that any new players coming in would feel “just as loved”. Meanwhile Jamie Maclaren had revealed how he’d spent the summer pining for last season’s strike buddy Florian Kamberi - “I didn’t know if I’d see Flo again,” he said plaintively - so when the chance came to rekindle their partnership he jumped at it. He would be heavily involved in the first half, both before and after St Johnstone took the lead with a goal against the run of play as Hibs dominated but were thwarted by doughty, and sometimes desperate, defending.
In the McGinn-less midfield, Emerson Hyndman, who’d produced a sparky cameo on his debut against Molde in the Europa League, showed up well again, although he would tire later. But Steven Whittaker struggled in the slippery conditions and slack play from him in the holding role would occasionally allow St Johnstone to hit on the break.
Martin Boyle, back on the right wing beat after some service through the middle, gave Wright’s men no end of hassle with his darting breaks and swerving runs. It was from one of these that Hibs gained their first opportunity, Oli Shaw stinging Zander Clark’s palms with a low drive. Hibs’ best chance of the first half, inevitably from a trademark driven Boyle cross from the right, fell to Maclaren whose effort from eight yards beat the goalkeeper only for Richard Foster to make a timely block on the line.
But in the 22nd minute it was Stevie Mallan’s turn to dither wide on the left of the Hibs box he lost the ball to Watt. The striker shot instinctively and although Ryan Porteous put his body in the way the strike skewed past Ross Laidlaw.
Rather like the corresponding fixture last season, Hibs would have wondered how they’d fallen behind. But six minutes into the second half Boyle’s menace finally produced its reward. This time there wasn’t much sprinting involved, just a carefully measured cross from a deep position to find Shaw at the far post. The young striker let the ball bounce before throwing himself at it to head past Clark.
Just after the hour Hibs made a double change, bringing on Kamberi and Horgan, but this pair’s first close-up view of the action was a St Johnstone attack, finished off with a Davidson header which drifted harmlessly wide.
Horgan saw a shot deflected over and then a Blair Alston header had just too much elevation. It was a good contest in the rain as both teams pushed for the winner. Horgan, in the old McGinn position, was providing plenty of industry and he was involved in the move which enabled Lewis Stevenson to have a crack at goal.
St Johnstone’s attacks were less frequent but every time they got forward they won a corner. From one of these Alston’s strike from the edge of the box was blocked heroically by Efe Ambrose. From the next corner the same player failed to get a good connection on his clearing header and the ball appeared to strike Porteous’ arm. Wright appeared furiously for a penalty but in vain.