- Hearts owner Ann Budge unfurls Championship flag before kick-off
- Three goals within five second-half minutes including Sam Nicholson’s winner
- Jambos have conceded five goals in first two competitive games in 2015-16
- Saints recover from 3-1 down but lost for third time in last four Tynecastle trips
- The two sides meet on the opening weekend for fourth time in six years
HEARTS made a victorious start on their Scottish top-flight return after coming out on top in a seven-goal thriller with St Johnstone.
The Scottish Championship winners, who unfurled the flag before kick-off at Tynecastle, took the lead inside four minutes when debutant Juanma Delgado punished a mistake by former Jambos defender Brad McKay.
In a breathless second period, Jamie Walker doubled their lead after Osman Sow’s penalty was saved by Alan Mannus and, after Simon Lappin’s reply, Callum Paterson slotted home to restore their two-goal cushion.
The Saints, though, roared back to draw level through a header by ex-Hearts striker John Sutton and substitute Graham Cummins’ finish from close range.
But, in a spell of three goals in five minutes, Sam Nicholson scored what proved to be the winner 10 minutes from time when flicking Paterson’s cross past Mannus.
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson, who lamented their display in Thursday’s Scottish League Cup win over Arbroath, will have been bemused by his side’s defending at times but equally delighted by some of their attacking play in a second half which came alive.
An entertaining contest will have satisfied the buoyant near-capacity crowd in Gorgie and encouraged the Jambos fans with many predicting Hearts, relegated from the Premiership having been deducted 15 points for entering administration in 2013-14, to secure a top-six finish.
They will have also been pleased by the performances of their new recruits with Polish defender Blazej Augustyn given his competitive debut while Spanish striker Juanma and Brazilian centre-back Igor Rossi – playing as a makeshift left-back – made their first starts.
Saints boss Tommy Wright will be disappointed to lose but pleased with his team’s recovery having made the newly-promoted side work hard for their win yet their rearguard look distinctly vulnerable in the absence of injured trio Steven Anderson, Dave Mackay and Frazer Wright.
The Perthshire club – who finished fourth last term and went out of Europe at the first hurdle last month – also lost stand-in skipper Chris Millar to a first-half injury.
Wright gave league debuts to McKay, Sutton, returning midfielder Liam Craig and former Aberdeen defender Joe Shaughnessy in an experienced side boasting five changes from their away goals defeat to Armenian outfit Alashkert in Europa League qualifying.
But it was the worst possible start for McKay – who signed a pre-contract agreement with the Saints in January – on his Tynecastle return as the centre-back’s stumble under no pressure allowed Juanma to stride through and finish underneath a helpless Mannus.
Despite the concession of the initiative to Hearts amid a vocal backdrop of home support, St Johnstone responded positively and their direct approach towards Sutton – Motherwell’s 13-goal top scorer last term – appeared to be more effective than the hosts’ own tactics.
The industry of Millar was a loss, however, with the midfielder joining Saints’ injury list after 20 minutes following a hefty challenge by Morgaro Gomis and was replaced by Scott Brown.
The Jambos rarely troubled the Saints defence thereafter in the first period although the ongoing dual between Juanma and McKay offered an intriguing sub-plot.
The long throw-ins of Irish full-back Shaughnessy offered a potent weapon which Saints utilised to full effect and Hearts keeper Neil Alexander was forced to flap one missile away nervously on his goal-line as Saints players lurked with intent in the vicinity.
From the same route, Sutton almost drew the visitors level before the interval but his glancing header was helped off the line by an alert Nicholson.
Hearts always threatened to overpower Saints with pace on the break which was illustrated when Juanma accelerated from deep before playing in Nicholson, who was felled by Mannus and referee Steven McLean pointed straight to the penalty spot.
The 33-year-old – on his 150th St Johnstone appearance – was booked for his troubles but despite saving Sow’s weak effort from 12 yards, he was beaten from close range by Walker who reacted quicker than his defence to follow up.
Saints – who had won their previous two opening weekend fixtures – halved the deficit just three minutes later when Lappin profited from Alexander’s misjudgement of a Shaughnessy throw-in to hook home his second goal for the club.
Their recovery task was made harder when Paterson raced onto Walker’s through-pass to slot past Mannus but the topsy-turvy second period continued as Sutton guided David Wotherspoon’s inch-perfect cross into the corner with quarter of an hour remaining.
And the home crowd were silenced when the improbable happened as Graham Cummins – signed from Exeter in the summer – marked his St Johnstone debut off the bench with a scruffy finish to level matters despite Hearts appealing for an offside flag that never came.
The sides drew 3-3 on their previous meeting at McDiarmid Park in January 2014 but there remained a sense that more drama was just around the corner.
From the next attack, Nicholson provided the final say by applying a stabbed finish to a curling Paterson centre from six yards out.
Desperate to hold onto their lead, Hearts brought on defenders Jordon McGhee and Kevin McHattie in the closing stages to add to their defensive ranks while Saints threw on striker Chris Kane in place of midfielder Wotherspoon in a final bid to snatch another equaliser.
But despite their best efforts, the visitors ran out of time as Hearts celebrated an epic opening weekend triumph which they hope will have the same effect as the Ibrox win 12 months ago which served as the platform for them to sweep the opposition aside in the second tier.
St Johnstone lost only one of their final nine league games last term and are accustomed to earning points based on their solid defensive foundations therefore Wright will be keen to tighten up at the back ahead of the visit of Inverness Caley Thistle next Saturday.
Substitutes: McHattie (on for Juanma 77′), McGhee (on for Walker 87′) and Reilly (on for Sow 90+1′).
Booked: Gomis (67′), Augustyn (84′), Paterson (89′)
Goals: Juanma Delgado (4′), Walker (53′), Paterson (62′), Nicholson (80′)
Substitutes: Brown (on for Millar 20′), Cummins (on for Lappin 69′) and Kane (on for Wotherspoon 85′).
Booked: Wotherspoon (24′), Mannus (51′)
Goals: Lappin (56′), Sutton (75′), Cummins (78′)
Referee: Steven McLean (Scotland) – 8/10