Hearts 2 - 1 St Johnstone: Hearts maintain lead at top
Against St Johnstone, though, the Tynecastle side made it harder for themselves than it ever ought to have been as they racked up a seventh win across an eight-game unbeaten run in this delightfully atypical championship.
Exhibiting the bustle of a team brimming with belief, at times early on against a St Johnstone side described as far too “loose” by their manager Tommy Wright, the home side looked as if they could post a sizeable figure in their ‘goals for’ column. Yet, it took until an imperious Jimmy Dunne header from a 65th minute Olly Lee corner for them to add to a first half opener that had originated from the same source, and ended with an inch-perfect looping header from the domineering midfield presence of Peter Haring.
It seemed of little importance that by the closing stages Craig Levein’s side had squandered a raft of chances - Steven Naismith, Steven MacLean and Callumn Morrison all missing glaring opportunities.
However, when Ross Callachan deftly met a Richard Foster cross from the right to send a first-time effort flying beyond Zdenek Zlamal on a return to his former club 13 minutes from time, the complexion changed and the outcome was suddenly thrown into the balance. Hearts endured a few scares before seeing the win out, though not without a few scares. Levein had no desire to fixate on the grit in the oyster, though, when the Hearts manager could consider there was a string of pearls to ponder.
He picked the same team as had excelled in the 4-2 Betfred Cup success over Motherwell in midweek and, ultimately, felt his “worries” over his players being able to exhibit the same energy went unfounded.
“When we move the ball quickly and involve the two Stevens and Peter we seem to be able to move through the pitch slickly,” he said. “My biggest bugbear is that we created loads of chances but couldn’t finish them off but if that’s the most I’ve got to complain about that’s not too bad at all.”
Levein’s side now face Rangers at Ibrox next Sunday - Steven Gerrard and assistant Gary McAllister watched this game from the Tynecastle stand - and then after the international break, face Aberdeen, Celtic in the Betfred Cup semi-final and then Hibernian and Celtic in the league. A run to be excited about, Levein said with a glint in his eye, while he had no desire to poo-poo any title talk that is building up around his team.
“I much prefer that than what they were saying about us last year when it was all about being lucky to be in the top six or top six contenders,” he said. “That isn’t as good as being at the top of the league. But we haven’t spoken about it ourselves, and there’s a long way to go.”
It seems a long way now from St Johnstone being spoken about as a team revitalised. They have endured a draining week with the 5-1 defeat away to Rangers, followed by the Betfred Cup quarter-final defeat at home to Celtic before their failure to get going in time at Tynecastle.
Little wonder that Tommy Wright proved exasperated when reflecting on his team’s undulations in the capital.
“The finish to the game was how we should have been for the whole game,” he said. I’ve got no complaints about the result but we started the game too loose. We lacked energy, where Hearts seemed right up for it.
“They were competitive and we lost too many first and second balls. There was a good response at 2-0 down and we should have scored straight after that which would have made it more interesting. But the energy we showed at the end – if we’d have showed that throughout the 90 minutes we’d have got a better result.
“It’s not difficult to start well here if your mind’s right and you’re ready for it. They should have been. Maybe it’s a mental tiredness from the other night. Hearts worked harder than us. And that made it a difficult afternoon for us. I’m looking for better from my team. We’ve had a chat about that, I’ve told them they can’t accept mediocrity.
“You’d pull your hair out looking at the unnecessary errors we made in the first half.”