MAYBE football clubs have been getting it wrong all these years. Maybe paying your players handsomely isn’t the way to do it, so much as leaving them hanging on for their remuneration.
The novel approach has certainly worked for the Hearts players who last night made it through to a first Scottish Cup semi-final in five years as they are having to make ends meet without their March salaries, now seven days late.
The quarter-final replay success at St Mirren Park wasn’t in any way comfortable or convincing until Rudi Skacel popped up with his obligatory goal against the Paisley club, planting a low effort into the corner to make it 2-0 with four minutes of normal time remaining. But that is not the point. Paulo Sergio’s men have now an April 15 Hampden date against Celtic to relish – and how their fans did in song last night – only days after they done a typical derby number on Hibs.
Back-to-back wins for their club. Yet when their wages were paid on time in February, the only month that has happened in the past five, the Tynecastle club slumped to a run in which six games yielded only one win. Topsy-turvy logic firmly in keeping with the topsy-turvy season Hearts have endured.
A penalty save from Jamie MacDonald, after incessant early St Mirren pressure, proved the pivotal point. Within six minutes of it, Jamie Hamill had hammered his team into a lead and, from that point onwards, Danny Lennon’s men played to their all-too-frequently toothless type.
Hearts, watched by Celtic manager Neil Lennon who was a studio analyst for Sky, will be hoping the frailities that cost the champions-elect their treble hopes in last Sunday’s Scottish Communities League Cup final defeat by Kilmarnock might rear again in what will prove their first return to the national stadium since that match.
Yet Segio’s side showed the have plenty of frailties themselves.
There was the expected and unexpected about the Portugues’ team selection. The former was provided by the return of captain Marius Zaliukas, restored to central defence alongside regular partner Andy Webster. The surprise element was Skacel being pressed forward to link with Craig Beattie.
Well, it maybe shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise considering the Czech makes merry against Danny Lennon’s side.
Going in to the replay, he could boast eight goals in his last four outings against them. A return, however, achieved entirely at Tynecastle.
Inside 37 seconds, Skacel should have claimed his St Mirren Park strike. Played in down the right by a smart Beattie pass, the attacker slid a low effort across the face of the goal from an acute angle.
The opening, of the sort Skaccel would normally gobble up against his pet team, was a false indicator for Hearts. They were, frankly, pummelled for the next 20-odd minutes as the home side seemed intent on leading the way in a breathless, crackling cup contest.
The fact St Mirren ended that spell a goal down illustrated precisely why pre-match Lennon expressed such grievances about being outbid threefold for a wage package to Beattie, who has subsequently failed to be paid his March money. Lennon’s team, as they have on so many occasions, lacked nothing but a finisher.
At times it was bagatelle in the visitors’ penalty box, respite brief with Ian Black and Darren Barr outnumbered and outmuscled in midfield. St Mirren looked to make capital out of Graham Carey whipping arcing crosses in from the left and they did, twice in quick succession. And twice Jamie MacDonald baled his team out.
The keeper demonstrated great agility to claw away a Nigel Hasselbaink lofted shot that was destined for the top corner. Then came MacDonald’s moment of real marvel.
A tangle for a cross 13 minutes that resulted in Zaliukas leaping with Steven Thompson brought a ball to hand high in the air. Referee Stevie O’Reilly had no hesitation in blowing for a penalty and cautioning the Lithuanian but might have ill-served the home side by pointing to the spot just as Hasselbaink netted the loose ball.
They would probably feel profoundly that way as a consequence of MacDonald denying Carey from 12 yards, despite the Irishman’s penalty being textbook in that it was low, hard and in the corner. Which says everything about the quality of the keeper’s full-stretch stop.
A warning that Hearts could respond was served to St Mirren when Jamie Hamill rattled the inside of the post with a ferocious diagonal hit from fully 25 yards midway through the period. It wasn’t heeded, and when Danny Grainger found Hamill in the same position after 31 minutes, the same sweet powerful striking was this time inch-perfect. Craig Samson was again beaten but this time the ball flew low into the corner of the net.
The goal energised the Hearts support filling out the visiting stand behind the goal who were in gleeful mood to begin with following their team’s latest derby success at the weekend.
It had much the same effect on their team, with Black beginning to win battles to provide Beattie with the service he had previously been starved of.
The second period could not provide the same incident quota as the first. Hearts seemed happy to hang on to their lead, in the main. St Mirren, without the suspended Paul McGowan, lacked the imagination to alter an increasingly predictable outcome. Indeed, the only genuine threat posed by the home side in the final half-hour came when MacDonald showed good spring to save a Teale hit from a tight angle.