THIS was dogged and defiant and most importantly it was a captain’s performance which proved good enough to get Hearts into the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup.
Having failed to settle matters at Tynecastle 10 days ago, betting men would have acknowledged the distinct possibility these two would be unable to take this tie to a conclusion without the aid of extra time and penalties. As the action played out it looked a safer and safer bet. Nullifying each other quite effectively for the biggest proportion of this encounter only the occasional goalmouth incident punctured play but not until the ding minutes did any offer a telling end product.
Hearts had settled their outstanding tax bill and were able to focus on the football, aware that, for once, it was another’s financial mismanagements which were under the microscope. But the respite would only be temporary if the chance at cup progress was denied the travelling support.
They have seen their side stutter slightly since the turn of the year, the tense cup win over Auchinleck Talbot and easier 5-2 league triumph over St Mirren a memory dulled by the subsequent four games without a win. For all that they remain in the battle for third place in the SPL and, thanks to Rangers 10-point deduction and ongoing problems, they will harbour hopes that even second place may be an outside possibility.
But in the quest for silverware rather than plaudits, they are desperate to edge closer and closer to Hampden. The last victory in the competition came in 2006 but since then, last night’s opponents had actually enjoyed more forays into the latter stages of the knockout competitions than the capital club.
St Johnstone were keen to continue that trend. Winners in the first two league head-to-heads the season, they were on the rebound from the weekend skelping they endured at the hands of Dundee United. Tannadice boss Peter Houston was gracious enough to say that the scoreline had flattered his men but 5-1 was still a big enough embarrassment to provoke some key changes to the starting line-up last night, with goalkeeper Peter Enckelman demoted to the bench. In his place, Alan Mannus, was a more commanding and confident figure as he stood firm against Hearts, although, like his opposite number he was hardly bombarded. Neither were completely idle, however, as the outfield men probed away.
The home side tested the hearts central defence in the opening minutes, with Fran Sandaza and Cillian Sheridan combining to exam the resolve of Andy Webster and Zaliukas and the latter almost gave them an in with just five minutes played. Sandaza sneaked in ahead of him as the Lithuanian looked for too much time in the box to gain control of the ball and clear but his centre-half partner got his body in the way as Sheridan sought to stab home from a few yards out.
Hearts drove upfield and, having won a corner, they almost capitalised on the home side’s inability to clear decisively. When the ball fell to Rudi Skacel he had a swing at it and Mannus had to get down to push it away from the target.
Hearts had made a couple of switches to their personnel but it was a settled backline and they did what a lot of other teams have failed to do this term, they gave the Saints’ front two little space in behind them to utilise their pace to clinical effect. While never electric, the match was evenly contested but eventually it was St Johnstone who found a breakthrough.
With both teams seeking to mix things up, Steve Lomas had thrown on Lee Croft, while Paulo Sergio had turned to David Templeton and Suso Santana and both gaffers will pat themselves son the back.
First to make an impact was Croft as he supplied the ball into Davidson and this time there was no bodies in the way to halt the ball as it found the net. At that point there were just seven minutes remaining and they must have thought that would be enough but then came Santana’s moment. Already well into time added on, the attacker forced Alan Maybury into a challenge in the box and he tumbled to the ground. The away support were convinced and so were the officials, with referee Brian Winter signalling a spot kick. There was a delay as yellow cards were waved about for the foul and then dissent but with the final kick of the match, Hamill struck it well, giving Mannus no chance
It heralded the extra 30 minutes where Hearts again defended deeply and defiantly as the ball bounced about in their box and S Johnstone tried to do the same but with three minutes of extra time left somehow Zaliukas won the latest instalment of pinball wizard and, having bundled it home, sent the fans into raptures.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Anderson (Oyenuga 108), McCracken, Wright, Maybury (Haber 93), Millar (Croft 70), Morris, Murray Davidson, Craig, Sandaza, Sheridan. Subs: Enckelman, Keatings. .
Hearts: MacDonald, Hamill, Webster, Zaliukas, Grainger (McGowan 73), Taouil (Santana 81), Robinson, Mrowiec, Obua (Templeton 64), Elliott, Skacel. Subs not used: Ridgers, Smith.