Hearts returned to BT Murrayfield today for game two of their mini-series at the home of Scottish rugby, with St Johnstone the visitors on a mild October day in the capital.
The Jambos were victorious in a scrappy match, with Kyle Lafferty’s deflected winner 15 minutes from time proving the difference as Hearts climbed into the top six for the first time this season.
Craig Levein made three changes to the side that was victorious in the Highlands last week. Don Cowie dropped out through injury, Connor Randall missed out through suspension while Harry Cochrane had a place on the substitutes’ bench following a nasty blow to the ankle in the first half of the match.
Into the side came Ross Callachan, last week’s substitute Jamie Brandon and David Milinkovic, the winger earning his first start of the season following his deadline day move from Italy’s Serie B.
In a scrappy first half, chances were at a premium as neither side seemed able to bring the ball down long enough to retain possession for any prolonged period of time, but Hearts shaded the overall opportunities.
The first of those came after the quarter-hour, when Kyle Lafferty rose to meet a John Souttar corner, but the Northern Irish forward headed wide under some pressure.
Isma’s pace was causing some difficulty for the St Johnstone backline, and he beat the offside trap down the left wing, before cutting inside and setting up Callachan who played in Jamie Walker, but his shot was deflected wide for a corner.
From that resulting set-piece, another out-swinging cross from Souttar was met by a towering header from Christophe Berra, whose downward effort was palmed away by Alan Mannus and out to safety.
The manager shuffled his pack and half-time, and made the decision to withdraw Prince Buaben, who had been booked very early in the match, in favour of Harry Cochrane who entered the field to a warm reception.
Walker was first to threaten into the second half. Michael Smith’s long throw was headed out to Callachan, who knocked it down to Walker but his acrobatic effort was volleyed over the bar from 20 yards.
Walker then won the ball brilliantly on the half-way line and burst into the St Johnstone half. He slid the ball through to Isma, but the striker’s first-time effort was weak and straight at Mannus.
Hearts finally got the breakthrough on 74 minutes, when Cochrane tried an effort from distance after fine work by sub Euan Henderson to win the ball back. Lafferty intercepted the shot, turned and his effort was deflected in from 16 yards.
Milinkovic was the withdrawn for Cole Stockton as the manager looked to shore up things, with Lafferty dropping back into a wide-midfield role as his hard-working tracking back would be vital for the latter stages of the match.
The youngsters Cochrane and Henderson were working their socks off for the team, with Cochrane’s dogged tracking and Henderson’s powerful running giving St Johnstone no time on the ball, resulting in route one football going into stoppage time.
The last action of the match saw Walker nick the ball on a counter attack and, with a 3-on-2 advantage, the forward slipped in Cochrane. The young midfielder’s first-time shot was struck true, but careened off the woodwork and out, as the game came to a conclusion and saw Hearts leapfrog their Perth rivals, as well as Hibs, ahead of the midweek Edinburgh derby.
Hearts: McLaughlin, M.Smith, Souttar, Berra, Walker, Buaben (Cochrane, 46'), Lafferty, Milinkovic (Stockton, 82'), Callachan, Brandon, Goncalves (Henderson, 69'). Subs: Hamilton, Nowak, Grzelak, Moore.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Shaughnessy, Millar (Johnstone, 82'), MacLean (Cummins, 67'), Wotherspoon (Alston, 76'), O'Halloran, Comrie, Scougall, Gordon, Easton, Craig. Subs: Clark, Tanser, Paton, Gilchrist.
Ref: Nick Walsh