Mulraney targets Europa League after goalscoring return


Alan Temple

JAKE MULRANEY, the Hearts winger, was forced to pop a couple of pills prior to completing his miraculous return to action on Saturday.

However, their efficacy paled in comparison to the pain-killing power of rippling the net in a breathless 5-2 win over St Mirren.

The Irish winger was ruled out for six weeks just three weeks ago after suffering strained ankle ligaments in Hearts’ 1-1 draw against Rangers.

The sight of Mulraney returning to training during the Jambos’ trip to St Andrews in midweek raised eyebrows, his inclusion on the bench against the Buddies was remarkable and the fact he entered the fray to complete the scoring with a sumptuous curling effort was astonishing.

“I am back a few weeks early,” he conceded. “I’m still in a bit of pain, to be honest. I had to take some tablets before going on but it’s not too bad.

“I think the ligaments are okay now, it’s just about building strength and getting through a bit of pain.

“But that goal is definitely better than a painkiller.”

Mulraney’s shock comeback was just one of a trio of major fitness fillips for Hearts.

Jamie Walker and Steven Naismith were named in the starting line-up for the first time since August after toiling with a broken fibula and persistent hamstring complaint, respectively.

And it was Naismith who opened the scoring after six minutes with a deft flick from an Andy Irving corner-kick, before embarking on a performance of technical quality, tireless work ethic and leadership.

“Naisy’s presence on the pitch is unbelievable,” lauded Mulraney. “Just look at him. He’s always talking people through games, egging people on, passing on information.

“It’s massive, especially for the young boys – and we have a lot of those in the team.

“He was at the very top so his standards are way up there. That’s what he wants from us.”

Or, as St Mirren boss Jim Goodwin succinctly put it, ‘a Hearts team with Steven Naismith in it are a different kettle of fish altogether’.

The Buddies did level through a neatly worked Jon Obika strike before an unfortunate own goal by Sean McLaughlin restored the Jambos’ lead. The sides then exchanged Danny Mullen and Ollie Bozanic efforts as the hosts went in at the break with a 3-2 lead.

If these relegation six-pointers are supposed to be fraught, tight affairs then nobody thought to inform the respective dugouts.

Hearts turned the screw after the break as a glancing Walker header and Mulraney’s wonderful drive from distance secured a pivotal three points.

Five goals in the league for the first time since August, a maiden home win in the Premiership in seven months and a swashbuckling, caution-to-the-wind style. This could not have been further from the latter days of the Craig Levein era.

“It was a little bit more structural, if that makes sense,” Mulraney said of Austin MacPhee’s impact since taking the reins as interim head coach.

“We knew what we had to do, we worked on it the whole week and had loads of meetings. We were really clear on what we had to do.”

MacPhee wasted no time in looking up the table, claiming that, with 13 points separating Hearts and Aberdeen, Europa League football should still be an ambitious target for the club – regardless of the individuals who ultimately take the roles of sporting director and head coach.

“The boys definitely agree with that,” added Mulraney. “We should be aiming for the Europa League.

“You could see on Saturday that we have got the quality to do it – we just have to do it over and over again.”

In sharp contrast, St Mirren boss Goodwin was visibly shell-shocked by an uncharacteristically porous showing from his side.

Prior to arriving in Gorgie, the visitors had not conceded more than two goals in a league match this season. While hardly the most fluent going forward, they are nothing if not resilient.

However, that stability was shot to pieces during a chastening 90 minutes in the capital, leaving the Paisley outfit two points adrift at the foot of the table.

“I’m gutted for the supporters who came through in great numbers,” he rued. “I’m disappointed that they had to witness that. We owe them a performance in a couple of weeks against Ross County.

“Our home form is excellent and we’ve got a few home games coming up so we have to take advantage.”

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