Hearts manager Ian Cathro says only time will tell if St Johnstone’s in-house problems can help the Tynecastle club into fourth place.
The two clubs are neck and neck in the chase to finish the season in what would be the final Europa League qualifying place, provided Hibernian do not retain the Scottish Cup, and while Tommy Wright’s men currently have the advantage, victory for the capital side at McDiarmid Park tonight would allow them to leapfrog their hosts.
Having won two of the three meetings between the sides this term and drawn the other, the home side are also the form team, having won three of their last six games, while Hearts have earned just four points over the same period.
But no-one knows how last weekend’s surprising showdown between Danny Swanson and Richard Foster will impact on matters this evening.
While the after-effects of the kickboxing bout at Hamilton will not be fully known for a while yet, and the outcome of this game could have a bearing on how the club ultimately views things, the fact is both will have to sit out the match against Hearts.
While Wright has more than able understudies for the pair, the unsettling nature of the fracas, on the club and the squad as a whole, has still to be quantified. Cathro admits that while he is, obviously, hoping it has had a negative effect, it could just as easily have galvanised the Perth team.
“I must be very honest, what I looked into was what the sending off meant and two players are out of the game who are good players, who have been important players in the St Johnstone team. The fact they can’t play? That’s all right. The effect? I honestly can see the argument for both sides – it could help them or hinder them but that’s not particularly prominent in my mind. What has changed is there are now players unavailable for the game and that’s the only bit that 100 per cent affects this game.”
The fact is two quality players will be missing and while Foster may seem like a blow, it is the absence of Swanson against his former team that could be of greatest benefit to Hearts. Since leaving Gorgie in February last year, the attacker has found a new lease of life in Perth and terrorised the club in his two meetings with them this term, scoring three times and dictating much of the play.
But even in the absence of the two suspended players, Hearts will have their work cut out addressing their recent record against St Johnstone. The Perth side have lost just one of the past ten head to heads with the capital club on any ground. They have not lost to Hearts since 2012 at McDiarmid Park.
That makes them a tricky tussle for a Hearts team attempting to bounce back from the 5-0 flagellation at the hands of Premiership champions Celtic on Sunday.
“The biggest success of St Johnstone over many years is that they are organised,” according to Cathro. “Things are clear to them, they are very experienced. They are good at managing their way through games in this league and, for that reason, everyone is going to face a tough game against them, home or away. There are a number of reasons why this will be a difficult game but, for us, this is a very important game and one we look forward to.”
It will be vital as Hearts try to achieve their aim of qualifying for European competition and the minimum target they set themselves at the start of the campaign of finishing at least fourth in the league. That, says Cathro, remains the goal but he says the best way to achieve that is not to look too far ahead or get bogged down by the bigger picture but to simply focus on each and every game.
“A lot of things can happen in a short period of time so let’s not look at that – let’s look at the next game and then the following game. The positions in the league can change in this game and can even change again in the next one so we focus on Wednesday and then Saturday.
“As things go it [Europe] is dependent on a lot of other people. It’s most important what we do ourselves, and our individual and collective attitude to get out of the games on Wednesday and Saturday what we want.
“I’ve spoken about it a lot but we’re a very ambitious club with a right to be ambitious because of the investment and work and love and power of the stadium and fans. We are right to have the expectation of being a team that can compete in the Europa League. We need to go step by step and the next step is this game.”
Despite the final score, the first half against Celtic has given the team something to work with according to fullback Lennard Sowah.
“Goals can change a game. They went 2-0 up and you could see [confidence] dropping,” he said. “We need to just focus on St Johnstone now. We have to deal with it, look at the good and bad.
“It was a big defeat but we played well in the first half and went toe to toe with Celtic. If we can play the same football for the rest of the season, we can get good results.”