St Johnstone weren’t quite sure how they lost this one, explaining they have played a lot worse this season and walked away with greater rewards. But the match was a lesson in taking chances when they come along.
While the Perth side were annoyed with the performance of referee Andrew Dallas, who denied them a strong penalty shout when Hearts captain Christophe Berra handled the ball in the box, they also had several openings that could have been exploited in the first half.
Hearts created few but coming out at the start of the second half, with a bit more attacking intent, the home side showed a more clinical execution than their guests and, consequently, emerged with all three points to get back on track after their midweek defeat by Celtic.
They have a 46th-minute David Milinkovic goal to thank for that, allied to another do-or-die defensive display and another goalkeeping masterclass by Jon McLaughlin.
Plenty of attacking options in his team, Craig Levein was a frustrated figure on the sidelines as his players struggled to maximise that threat, grappling to get their passing flowing and failed to adhere to the pre-match tactics of getting the ball wide, and getting crosses in behind their well-organised opponents.
A below-par performance, the fact they were still able to grab the win was a relief and it came after a half-time dressing down. But with the message on crosses fresh in their minds, and with Saints, according to their boss Tommy Wright, sloppy in those early minutes of the second half, Danny Amankwaa swung a ball into the box and Milinkovic held off Scott Tanser to eventually stab the ball past Alan Mannus and give the restless home fans something to cheer and the team a lead that they could defend.
It was a moment Saints were left to rue, but no more than the litany of chances they had failed to convert in the first half, the best falling to Chris Kane, right, who smacked one hooked volley on the turn off the bar, sent another into the side netting and was foiled by McLaughlin on at least another couple of occasions.
“Everyone is frustrated as I thought we played well, and created loads of chances,” said the Perth striker. “It is disappointing as we had a few opportunities and their keeper has made some great saves. I’ve had a few chances myself and also hit the bar.
“We kept pushing even in the second half but it just felt like it wasn’t going to be our day.
“We are not on a great run but we played well against Albion and we did well against Hearts as well. We are a strong squad and we will bounce back. I’m sure we will start to get the results our performances deserve.”
Trailing to the Milinkovic goal, matters were made even worse for them with almost half an hour remaining. That was when David Wotherspoon incurred his second booking after a clash with Hearts debutant Joaquim Adao. It led to his dismissal and irked Wright, who felt the foul should have been given the other way.
But even with a one-man advantage Hearts failed to really take firm control of the match and although they were able to exert more pressure in the final minutes, as Saints committed men forward, their manager acknowledged that they had had to reprise the defensive resolve that has served them so well since early November to deliver another important clean sheet.
“I don’t think I will ever get bored with that,” said Levein, who was pleased with the debut of defensive midfielder Adao. “I am still a lover of seeing defending done properly and I like to see people who are committed and willing to put their body on the line to stop a goal or help their team-mates.”