In the build-up, the Hearts boss played down the idea that the Tynecastle Park meeting took on extra significance with trips to Celtic, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock to come after defeat to Motherwell in their previous outing. However, following the 3-0 win over the Perth Saints in Gorgie, it was no surprise to hear Neilson admit “I think it was really important”. With Hibs, 4-1 winners at Livingston, breathing down their necks, the gap to fourth remains at five points.
It was a far from straightforward 3-0 win, a scoreline which perhaps flattered the home side. There was an element of fortune to the first of Josh Ginnelly's double, a huge deflection off Liam Gordon, handed his Hearts debut by Neilson, and the third scored by Jorge Grant from a wayward cross. St Johnstone, who were the better side for periods, ensured there were some very dicey moments as the home side tried to build from the back, the ball presented to the men in blue in dangerous areas more than once.
"They are really well organised, they press really well, aggressive in the press,” Neilson said. “They always have a threat... You have to be careful. What pleased me with the players was a couple of times we gave the ball away but we kept passing it through and eventually got ourselves there.”
Key to that was one of the big decisions the Hearts manager made with his team selection. Cammy Devlin and Toby Sibbick dropped to the bench, while Stephen Humphrys sat out with an injury. It allowed Ginnelly, who brings an x-factor with his pace, to come into attack but of equal importance was the inclusion of Jorge Grant. It was felt the team were “too possession-based... not aggressive enough” against Motherwell, too deep. The summer signing, who has had to bide his time out of the team has recently been at the forefront of a lot of Hearts’ best play, whether it was against Hamilton in the Scottish Cup, off the bench at Fir Park or against St Johnstone. Grant was given a licence to join the attack from a central midfield position. He was keen to drift right, allowing Michael Smith to move infield and become an unlikely threat. There was one moment he delivered a pinpoint pass to Lawrence Shankland in the first half, one of two chances created. In the second, his efforts appreciated by fans for chasing a lost cause from a ball from going out for a goal kick.
“I thought he did well,” Neilson, who also praised the impact of Orestis Kiomourtzoglou off the bench, said. “He played higher which we tried to do. I think that was one of our problems recently, our centre-backs have been deep, midfielders have been deep, 10s have been deep. Jorge was a lot closer to the strikers so allowed us to get him into the areas he's good at. He's a technically top player, there's no doubting that. We need him higher up the pitch, we managed to do that today, so really pleased with him.”
There were two key first-half moments which had a profound effect on how the game ebbed and flowed. St Johnstone players felt there was a foul in the build-up to the opening game, while former Saints goalkeeper Zander Clark produced a huge save to deny Drey Wright ten minutes later.
‘Standard we set’
“Whether it was a foul or not we have to react better," Davidson said. “It will be checked by VAR so you have to play to the whistle. For me we didn’t react quick enough and then the deflected goal goes in. It was a big moment in the game and it’s something we have talked about, you have to keep going.
“I thought it was an even game until they scored the third, it sounds daft saying it after a 3-0, but I always felt we were in it. We tried to do the right things, we put them under pressure and were tactically good. Hearts have good players, they can open you up and we have to do better on the defensive side."
With St Johnstone missing Nicky Clark, Andy Considine and Daniel Phillips, all of whom would have impacted the game in each third, it was going to be a tall order against a Hearts side that have proved they can be effective and efficient on days where they don't hit their fluid and free-flowing best. They had luck on their side but also the best passages of play came from the home side, whether it was the way Robert Snodgrass and Shankland combined to set up Smith for a good chance or the way Alex Cochrane slid the ball through to Barrie McKay to set up Ginnelly for his second. They are now two points better off than at this stage last season when they cantered to third.
“It’s like anything at Hearts, we just need to keep winning games," Neilson said. “It doesn’t matter what we did last week, we need to win. We go to Parkhead on Wednesday and we’ll be expected to win the game. Then the cup game after it we will be expected to win. It’s just about trying to win every week. That’s the standard we set.”