Earlier this week stand-in boss Austin MacPhee joked that he had been upstaged by Hearts owner Ann Budge when it came to get-well gifts. But if her signing of Demi Mitchell was more impressive than the bunch of grapes he took when visiting Craig Levein in hospital, Steven Naismith found a way to outdo them both.
His first-half hat-trick and an assist capped another wonderful all-round performance from the Norwich City loanee and proved he could still be an asset in Alex McLeish’s Scotland set-up.
The game started perfectly for a home side keen to keep the absent Levein’s stress levels low. Just days after his heart scare, the Gorgie boss will have been heartened by news of the fourth minute opener.
Starting the game with a 100 per cent record in the Premiership and looking to extend their unbeaten run in all competitions to nine, early pressure saw Jack Baird bring down Uche Ikpeazu and serve up a fourth-minute spot kick.
It was Naismith who stepped up to slot it past Craig Samson and while St Mirren equalised, through a Jimmy Dunne own goal, Naismith turned provider to play a ball across the box for Olly Lee to pick out the air and finish with aplomb.
Involved in everything, pulling strings in possession and chasing down St Mirren when they briefly took control, it was the performance of a leader and, with another two goals putting the match well out of reach of the Paisley visitors by the time the interval arrived, it was one that will brighten the spirits of his boss, who worked so hard to bring him to Tynecastle.
“That was an easy team talk today,” said the 31-year-old. “Because for everyone involved today from players to staff, it was the manager who has backed us and put us here. So that was the least we could do for him today. I’m glad it went so well for him. He’s now got a bit of time to recover.
“That was good. We’ve started the season very well and we have to continue doing it. We can’t look too far ahead. I’ve been involved in teams fighting for titles and they’re not won in August or September. But we’re hungry, we’re playing well and long may it continue.”
MacPhee may have been the presence in the dugout but team selection was still down to Levein, who had enjoyed breakfast with his assistant on the morning of the game but unable to watch the game had been incommunicado throughout the 90 minutes. But the club maintained their early season momentum.
“They did especially well in the first 15 minutes which allowed the supporters to then help the team. We got ahead and after the equaliser I was delighted with their reaction to losing the goal.
“When it went to 1-1 you maybe look to the dugout and think ‘where is Craig?’ But the players, and in particular the experienced ones, showed a wonderful attitude to take the team forward.”
Even when St Mirren managed to peg back their hosts, when Cammy Smith succeeded in getting the better of Michael Smith and drove a shot along the goalline for the unfortunate Dunne to deflected past his own keeper, Hearts remained firmly in control.
If the guests showed the league leaders too much respect and sat off them and gave them time to play passes round them, the opportunities were gratefully received by a side intent on putting as many points as possible between themselves and their main top tier challengers.
Lee’s third goal of the season, in the 30th minute, was something special and by the time Naismith headed home the third goal in the 40th minute and then completed his hat-trick two minutes later, slotting a low shot across the keeper and inside the far post, St Mirren looked lost.
As they trudged off at half-time, they must have been fearing the worst as Hearts players were queuing up for shots on goal.
Manchester United’s Mitchell, in his first game back since rejoining the club on loan, had chances, as did Ben Garuccio, Smith and Lee while Ikpeazu and Steven MacLean were again a constant menace.
The second half was not as bruising though, as Alan Stubbs men managed to get further up the park and forced John Souttar into a goalline clearance, while Alfie Jones fluffed a close range opening with less than 10 minutes remaining, allowing Zlamal to get down and gather.
But the fact that there were no more Hearts goals did not dampen the mood of the home fans who are delighted with how the season has started and, as well as unfurling a banner wishing Levein a speedy recovery, they sang his name.
He may not have been in the technical area but the manager’s mark was all over the men who secured another emphatic victory in his absence.