Despite the fantastic win and performance against Ayr Utd, we were still up against. The other teams in this relegation fight weren’t simply going to roll over and let Saints climb the table with ease, we expected absolutely no favours from anyone, but that said some pretty bizarre things happened outwith our control before the end of the season that would impact on Saints attempt to survive.
The first of these was already upon us, ‘The Raith Rovers Goalkeeping Crisis’. With Ayr facing the Kirkcaldy side at home three days after our own victory at Somerset Park, it was revealed Rovers had no fit goalkeepers and former Ayr midfield legend Ryan Stevenson was going to be in goals for the visitors.
How a professional club can allow this situation to happen is still open to debate, however at this point the Saints supporters were stuck between this being a good or bad thing depending on whether you believed Saints could catch one or two teams.
Some wanted Ayr to capitulate and were happy for Saints to enter the play offs, and others wanted as many teams in the relegation scrap as possible and were pleased Rovers chances of success in this match were diminished. I was in the latter camp, my Black and White tinted glasses were fixed firmly to my face, and I was looking at catching Dunfermline in sixth.
The truth however was an Ayr victory would put the gap back up to eight points, and Saints would be looking to beat Champions elect Hibernian the following night to cut it back to five, in reality it could have been a step forward followed by two steps back, and confidence was absolutely crucial at this stage of the season.
As it transpired, both of these things happened, with Ayr narrowly beating a Stevenson inspired Rovers who sadly quit football soon after, and Saints taking care of Hibs 2-0 with a fabulous performance at Greenhill Road the following night that should have been at least double the score had Saints taken their multiple chances.
Star of the night was left back Stelios Demetriou who scored twice, but the intensity and pace of Saints that night was incredible and on reflection this was the best performance of the season as they were playing a very good side and Scottish Cup holders and simply tore them apart.
The first goal was sublime, with McGinn using great skill to find Mallan who dissected Hibs right side with the pass of the season to the on-running Stelios, at the time he was an unknown quantity, but he cut back onto his right foot and fired beyond Marciano with ease. Magnificent goal.
Even after a couple of matches, it was becoming obvious that McGinn was going to be pivotal to the survival attempt. Not only could he play, but he was allowing Mallan to return to his very best, and that is a level that puts him at the most influential player in the division, bar none. I tweeted at half time that night they were an outstanding partnership, but they weren’t the only stars of this new Saints side which contained several new signings.
At centre half, a problem position for Saints for probably well over a decade, Harry Davis fitted in perfectly with Gary MacKenzie who had been playing at an excellent level for several months now. Whilst big Mac was dominating in the air and on the deck, Davis was the perfect foil as his reading of the game was so good, although defensively he was strong also.
Other new signings were also fitting in nicely, Adam Eckersley was the consistent reliable type we had missed at left back since Paul Dummett played for the club, and Demetriou was an incredible mix of explosive flair and unpredictably that fans simply adore, and he was a full back!
In midfield, Kyle Magennis had been converted to a makeshift right midfielder, and was growing superbly into the role, his pace and skill along with his tactical intelligence marking him as an outstanding prospect to the future.
Further up the field, Cammy Smith was vital to the new style of the side as his constant movement and driving runs at the opposition (like Lewis Morgan) were a throwback to a different era when wingers and attackers could beat a man on either side and be a threat. Smith seemed to move seamlessly from a central attacking position to either wing when asked, and it was a masterstroke from the manager to convince him to come to Paisley.
However it was the managers ability to get the best out of players already at the club and who were perhaps struggling a bit that says more about his man management. Gary Irvine and Stephen Mallan in particular benefited from this, the turnaround in their form was astonishing.
Next up for Saints was a a trip to Parkhead in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup, as Saints took on domestically unbeaten Celtic at The Restricted View Arena. In my opinion, the game came at the wrong time, I wanted to play and win league matches and was fearful of a cuffing that would dent the confidence of a team that was resurgent.
The 4-1 final score may be construed as a heavy defeat, but it only tells half the story. Saints led for half the match courtesy of a thirteenth minute Davis goal following a wonderfully worked set piece, and were then the underside of the crossbar away from doubling their lead on the 55th minute when Mallan whipped in a free kick, which had the whole country scratching their heads as to why Saints were bottom of the Championship. Saints fans had the answer to that however, Rae and Farrell.
Celtic had to bring on Roberts and Griffiths to turn the match, and despite the final score Parkhead manager Brendan Rodgers repeated on about five different occasions that Saints were ‘the best team we have played this season, including Premiership sides’. And Rodgers hadn’t been near Ian McCall and his pipe either.
A great compliment, but the notoriously hostile Scottish Press went into frenzy about this for the next 72 hours. David Tanner, the Ralph Wiggum of Scottish broadcasting, and anchor for Sky Sports ‘coverage’ of Scottish football had that permanent look on his face of panicked bewilderment, the type you would get if you have discovered you had accidentally periscoped yourself doing a shite, and laughed to Neil McCann ‘He didn’t mean that surely’ which is Scottish media talk for ‘He really means Rangers, right?’
Everybody had their say in the media, Radio Clyde descended into a farce, sorry my mistake that is every night, but suddenly the whole country seemed to be transfixed on Saints, and that made me uncomfortable as we had another massive match against Raith Rovers at Starks Park in the days after this.
Rovers had found a keeper by then, a Slovakian called Pavel Penska who had played practically no regular football in ten seasons even in the lower reaches of European football. This made me feel even worse, suddenly there was a bit of additional pressure on Saints to win, as if we needed that.
Backed by an away support of close to one thousand on this cold midweek, Saints dominated possession but couldn’t break the rigid Rovers formation down, even failing to test Penska once. It had an inevitably about it all in truth.
On the 69th minute, Rovers brought on Ryan Hardie, him of the hedge attitude, and we know the rest. It finished 2-0 to the Kirkcaldy side and the biggest waste of space in Paisley since the Piazza was built scored both goals. Collective rage from all Buddies on this one.
Next up was a home fixture against Dunfermline, a tricky match that ended 0-0, a completely fair result in truth, that was memorable for some extraordinary diving from the Fifers, Kallum Higginbotham in particular had three attempts and not once did he get a free kick or a booking. He was living proof that if you looked a bit daft, you acted massively prickish.
Suddenly it appeared as if the ‘second best side in the country’ had lost momentum again, no goals and one point from two matches where probably four would have minimum beforehand. It was the 11th March and Saints had now played three quarters of their fixtures, twenty seven matches and only twenty one points to show for it.
Going into the last quarter of fixtures, the final nine, Saints were still only four points adrift of Ayr, but Raith and Dumbarton had extended their leads to eight and nine points respectively, this was looking like a two horse race now between Jack Ross and Puff the Magic Dragon down the coast at Ayr.
With promotion chasing Dundee United next to visit Paisley during the week, this was a hectic run of matches. Many feared not winning and this could be the final straw again as Ayr would have a game in hand, this was how emotions were going at the time, it was boom and bust stuff.
The side never hit the standards they did against Hibs, but they didn’t need to and were still far too good for the Tannadice club. Goals from Davis, an outrageous Mallan free kick, and the mesmerizing Lewis Morgan gave Saints a well deserved 3-2 victory.
Suddenly and for the first time since the 1st Novemeber, Saints were within touching distance of second bottom spot, a solitary point behind Ayr, who admittedly had a game in hand.
The bad news however was a season ending injury to big Harry Davis, whose influence can be best summed up in his league stats. Played six, scored twice, and three clean sheets. The team only managed three clean sheets in the other THIRTY league matches, and big Harry deserves a special mention for that alone.
One of these other three clean sheets came on the Saturday at Dumfries as Saints won 2-0 despite being outplayed for the most of the first half, Stevie Mallan’s unerring opener on the stroke of half time was added to by Rory Loy from the penalty spot just after the break in a match Lewis Morgan was simply unplayable. There was definite steel in this side though to go with the flair, and the victory pulled another two points back on Dumbarton in 8th, but Saints remained bottom a point adrift as Ayr United also won that afternoon.
The following Saturday was Irn Bru Cup final time, and another match against Dundee United whose fans insisted they would not be taking this game seriously as they had once played Barcelona and were one of the biggestest sides in the whole world ever, so there.
Their fans were true to their word, and only a few thousand travelled, although the kick off time and venue were pretty unfair on the Arabs, but their players took it seriously enough and won a decent match 2-1. That was cup football over now, and the only job was staying up.
Later in that afternoon, Ayr United beat Dumbarton 2-1 stretching their lead over Saints to four points again with seven matches remaining. Ayr would travel to Paisley the following Saturday for what Sky Sports would have classed as ‘Relegator Armageddon Monster Saturday’, had they ever given a toss about Scottish football.
Anyway, before this meeting Ayr had a fixture at Tanandice, and in what seemed like a rare occasion when a score actually went our way, the home side won 2-1, despite a triple goal line clearance in the last minute of injury time from various United defenders that had Ian McCall back on the park again during the match believing his side had scored. Glorious, glorious stuff, and for the chain smoking McCall it was about to get much worse.
The 1st April 2017 could easily go down as one of the most important dates in Saints modern history. Defeat would more or less relegate us, maybe not arithmetically as Tom Hendrie would say, but psychology it would have been such a blow that there would have been no way back, seven points adrift with six matches remaining, even a draw would not be great.
Looking at the sides, there was only one winner and that was Saints. Unbeaten in five against Ayr that season and had recently convincingly beaten the Ayrshire side at Somerset Park. Maybe this was on the Ayr players minds, but even so Saints came out like an absolute hurricane and blew the Ayrshire side away with as clinical, exhilarating and ruthless performance I have ever seen from a Saints side.
Mallan, MacKenzie, McGinn and Magennis had Saints four up at half time, and they could have had more. Rumours that Ian McCall spent half time in the car park smoking a full twenty pack of regal with nicotene patches glued to his eyeballs have never been denied, but Lewis Morgan added a splendid fifth just after half time and everyone in the stadium including anyone with anything to do with the Honest Men were thinking ‘double figures’.
As so often happens in football however, Saints dropped a level after this but the 6-2 final scoreline sent out a firm message, and not ‘Ian McCall, yer a plamfy wee helmet’ as screamed by that guy that sits behind me, but quite clearly Saints were more than up for the fight. Nobody would want to play us.
Nobody that is, except Dumbarton who were up next at St. Miren Park. Our bogey side who we had yet to beat this season, and had only managed one win against the previous campaign. World class time wasters, and a goalkeeper who is very talented at shot stopping and that other essential attribute Stevie Aitken likes in his keepers, do absolutely anything to avoid taking a goal kick within 100 seconds, but not if we are behind. It’s a real attribute on his version of FIFA.
In the previous match between the sides, the 2-2 draw at the Rock, Sons keeper Alan Martin broke the world record for ‘most times ones socks can be pulled up in an hour’ when he reached the figure of 5837 after 15 minutes of play, and still Aitken berated him on the sideline for going too quickly.
This match finished 1-1, but most memorable for me was Aitken furiously looking at his wrist watch around forty times in the space of twenty seconds, no exaggeration. The man is obsessed with time, and how quickly it goes. I’m convinced he curses at calendars.
The disappointment of this draw was cancelled out by the fact that for the first time in 211 days Saints were off the bottom of the league, this point closed the gap on Ayr and we were now above them on goal difference. Twenty six consecutive matches at the bottom of the league, and finally we were off it. We wouldn’t return either.
Now we had a game in hand, and at Cappielow the following Wednesday night. A place of many, many victories in the past, in fact probably the best ground for Saints to visit if we needed a win. I’d seen Saints win here more times than any other ground bar St. Mirren Park, and we handed out some real thumpings in the process. Additionally this was a chance to get revenge for what had happened previously in the season as every man, woman, child, cat/human hybrid in Greenock had seemingly lined up to kick us when we were down.
The players did not let the fans down, and with 2,000 Buddies in the ground what a magnificent sight it was. The opening goal was scored by Stelios, who seemed to be somehow playing left back and right wing at the same time, and he collected yet another defence splitting Mallan pass on the left, cut inside to his right, beat two men and with the composure of a veteran striker stroked the ball into the corner of the net in front of the Saints support, and as one, both Demetriou and the Black & White Army embraced each another as though they had experienced the greatest thing that had ever happened.
I was in the main stand watching this unfold, and was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my season. By full time it was 4-1, with Mallan, Sutton and the colossal MacKenzie adding second half goals to confirm a comfortable yet epic victory. And with that, Saints were up to eighth with four very hard games to play, the miracle was on.