THIS was a game of short-term and long-term survival. For St Mirren manager Danny Lennon, it was first and foremost about securing the first win of the season and keeping himself in a job.
Scorers: St Mirren - McGinn 42, McGowan, 58
But, for both, the bigger picture was one in which relegation dominated the frame.
Nibbling away at the 15-point deficit, Hearts went into the head-to-head just nine points behind the Paisley side whose poor start to the season and the fact they were still minus their first victory of their campaign had helped breathe life into Hearts’ season. It meant that some had already labelled this tussle one of the earliest relegation deciders ever.
No one on the pitch was buying that – it could never be that conclusive with less than a quarter of the league fixtures played – but the importance of the game was not lost on anyone. In fact, it seemed to swamp the young Hearts players, who appeared to let the occasion get to them. They denied that, claiming they had simply had an off day. If that was the case, it was a poor day to have one.
In front of a huge crowd of almost 15,000, they ran on to the pitch to defiant chants of “the Hearts are staying up’” They may yet but they will have to do better than this.
For the first 20 minutes they matched their visitors but then St Mirren got to grips with the game, grew in confidence and ensured that they got their rewards.
The first-half goal from John McGinn gave them the advantage as they trooped into the dressing room at half-time.
Having weathered what Hearts and the partisan Tynecastle crowd could throw at them in that opening spell, the confidence of a side low on self-belief was boosted by that goal, according to midfielder Paul McGowan. “We went in at half-time and the boys were buzzing. We are obviously delighted but for a lot of the boys it’s mainly relief.”
He added the second after the interval to wrap up the win for the Paisley side. The fact it was only their second since they had defeated Hearts at Hampden in last season’s League Cup final was one reason Lennon, left, was under so much pressure but he said that in such adversity, the true strength of his squad had been revealed.
“I’m glad at times like this that it’s character that’s required because I know I have that in abundance in the dressing room,” he said, claiming that the route to rehabilitation was never going to be an easy one for his side after such a dire start to the campaign. “There is no easy way to success. There’s no elevator, just a stairway,” he said, happy that his players had climbed another step. The win took them past Kilmarnock, who are now the side looking over their shoulder at Hearts.
There is now a ten-point gap but while the Gorgie players left the pitch a dejected looking bunch and were hurting according to their manager, Gary Locke, it remains way too early to consign them categorically to the Championship.
Out-played on the day, while St Mirren rose to the occasion, Hearts dipped below the standards they have set this season. Lacking composure and sloppy with their passing, they gave their opposition the belief they needed. The afternoon also served as a reminder that passion alone will not be enough to stave off the drop. It also illustrated the handicap the signing embargo will be as they struggle on without an out-and-out striker.
Having lost the first goal in the 42nd minute, when Conor Newton’s cross was flighted in and with Kenny McLean failing to get to it, McGinn came in at the back post to head firmly beyond Jamie MacDonald. The visitors visibly relaxed after that and while Hearts tried to switch things around, bringing on Billy King for Scott Robinson after the break, they struggled to get back on terms with St Mirren.
The best chance fell to Callum Paterson in the 55th minute. He had been well-shackled by the St Mirren backline for most of the game but when a Ryan Stevenson through ball found him inside the area, he ballooned it over. Within seconds, the away side had rubbed salt in his wounds, heading up the other end of the pitch to serve up the second goal.
MacDonald couldn’t gather the original ball in from David Van Zanten and McGowan reacted swiftly to get his foot to the ball and prod it into the net.
It was no more than they deserved on the day. For Hearts it was a reminder of the mountain they still have to climb. Despite a promising start to the league campaign, they have only picked up one point from the past five matches. But Locke is refusing to panic.
“I said before the game that there is still a long way to go but I would have liked to put the pressure on St Mirren,” he said.
It wasn’t to be.
B King (46)