The old one-two of frustration and head-scratching greeted the full-time whistle for all connected with Hearts after this one. It must have felt as though they had been mugged – and essentially they were by a canny St Johnstone side who have been here before, soaking up pressure from more fancied opposition and digging deep to see out a win.
Robbie Neilson’s men started where they had finished off against Hamilton the previous week, threatening to blow away opponents who looked distinctly vulnerable to the verve and pace of Sam Nicholson in particular. In Saints goalkeeper Zander Clark, however, they came up against a goalkeeper who was to put in a truly outstanding shift and helped inspire his team-mates to go on to seize the points.
There won’t be many better stops this season than the two that Clark put in to deny Faycal Rherras and Jamie Walker in a crucial period in the first half where Hearts’ dominance needed to be translated into something tangible.
The young keeper followed it up with another jaw-dropping tip-over from Tony Watt’s free-kick just after half-time and then a one-handed reflex block on Igor Rossi’s netbound header. Man of the match? It was never in any doubt.
Significantly, barely a minute after Clark had finished dusting himself down from denying Rossi, his team-mates had threaded together their best move of the game involving Steven MacLean, Richard Foster and Liam Craig, which ended with the latter’s drive being flicked past Jack Hamilton by Graham Cummins.
Hearts didn’t give up the ghost by any means – Callum Paterson saw a thundering header come off the bar and then the same player squandered a great opening in the dying moments. They lacked their earlier fluency and momentum, however, and Saints, with the old warhorse Steven Anderson to the fore, saw out the win. To cap a disappointing afternoon, Neilson, pictured, was sent to the stand for falling foul of the fourth official.
The Hearts manager was not the only one being questioned on matters disciplinary after the game, though, with Saints’ Tommy Wright being forced to confront the awkward fact that two of his players (Cummins and substitute Chris Kane) had been yellow carded for simulation, the very offence he had suggested Hearts were prone to indulge in the pre-match build up. Wright said that “it’s not something we condone” adding that he would look at the incidents again and that, if he agreed with the decisions, the players would be fined.
On a happier note, there was a nice touch by Wright’s players as they held aloft a team shirt bearing the name of Dave Mackay as they celebrated the game’s only goal, showing their solidarity with their former skipper who has just announced his retirement from the game due to injury. He may have been the Saints hero for this particular 90 minutes but Clark was anxious to join in the tributes to MacKay.
“You don’t need me to tell you what Dave’s done for the club,” observed Clark. “He’s been a great pro on and off the field. He’s been massive for the likes myself and younger boys coming through the club. He’s always there to talk to so obviously it’s disappointing, but Dave felt it’s time to call it quits and we wish him all the best. It’s a big loss for the club but it’s good to still have him in and about the place.”
He put a modest perspective on his contribution to Saints victory, adding: “It’s always pleasing to make saves, more so if you can go on to keep a clean sheet and win the game.”
His opposite number Jack Hamilton didn’t see any need for understating Clark’s part in making it the one that got away for the Tynecastle men – “It wasn’t the result we were after. We had some fantastic chances. Their goalkeeper was excellent – sometimes it’s just not your day.”