Sunday, 25 March 2012

St Mirren 0 Heart of Midlothian 2

24 hours after my trip to Hamilton came another great opportunity for football. While the previous evening had been spent with Andy Pickwell, this one at St Mirren was with the similarly-named Andy Picken, who is Political Editor of the Scottish Mail on Sunday and a dedicated Saints fan. 
We’d watched the initial sixth round tie between these two sides while covering the SNP Conference at the SECC a fortnight earlier - it ended two-apiece - and he kindly agreed to take me to the replay at New St Mirren Park. In my quest to cram in as much Scottish football as possible in my six months here, I wasn’t about to turn down the offer.
Little did he realise though that he’d be spending the day in London, hob-nobbing with a welter of Scottish MPs and the Westminster press pack and watching George Osborne deliver the Budget, but the inconvenience of being 400 miles away didn’t phase him and our trip was on. 
Of course, the train was delayed and I spent an anxious half hour shuffling around on the Glasgow Central concourse watching the connections we needed to get out to Paisley move across the departure board. The 7.15 passed, then the 7.20. By the time the 7.25 disappeared I was getting restless and so went to Burger King for some onion rings. When I returned, the last hope of going by train had vanished. As Andy jogged through the ticket barrier at twenty to eight, our hopes of making kick-off rested in the hands of a cabbie. 
In the event, we missed only about ten minutes and after throwing £15 at the ticket booth, took up our seats in the corner of the main stand. I was struck that the ground, which has been open just three years, was compact and well-designed with just the right capacity at 8,000. It certainly seemed full on this occasion, with the only visible empty seats far away to our left in the ‘Railway End.’ The home section of the side opposite was full and sweeping away to our right was a sold-out bank of about 1,300 Hearts fans, who created some decent noise. 
Hearts entered the match on a high having won the Edinburgh Derby on Sunday but were quickly on the back foot as St Mirren peppered their goal in the opening 25 minutes. Nigel Hasselbaink - nephew of Jimmy Floyd - looked lively and forced a save over the top by goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald. 
The bright start culminated with yet another moment of huge contention - my third in three games. Graham Carey had delivered a teasing ball and Hearts defender Marius Zallukas clearly handled under pressure. The referee failed to respond and Hasselbaink headed into the goal to scenes of jubilation around the ground. But no. Referee Stevie O’Reilly saw no advantage and inexplicably pointed to the penalty spot, ruling out the goal. With a depressing sense of inevitability, Carey’s penalty was saved by MacDonald. 
St Mirren crumbled thereafter - the confidence drained from their play, passes were always the wrong option and they seldom got a shot away. Gary Teale - who with his colourful boots looked likely to create something, as he often did when I watched him at Sheffield Wednesday last season - suddenly looked lost.
Jamie Hamill fizzed a shot against the base of the post, but the Edinburgh side wouldn’t be denied for much longer. The ball was given away to Danny Grainger, who advanced and fed Hamill to fire an accurate low shot past Craig Samson and give them the half-time lead. 
The second period was tame by comparison and only Hearts looked like scoring. Rudi Skacel, who I’m told always scores against St Mirren, forced a superb one-handed save from Samson. But the Czech, whose name was sung with great passion by the Hearts fans, wouldn’t be denied and secured passage into the semi-finals for his team with a close-range finish late on. There wasn’t enough time to mount a comeback and few home fans remained until the final whistle on a disappointing night.
Next Match: Hoping to take in another Scottish game before travelling to Halifax to watch Boston on Easter Monday.