2019/20 – Chapter Eight, Part One. February 2020 (1st – 12th)

February started off the back of the craziest transfer deadline day in many years, with seven players brought in by Jim Goodwin, two going out permanently and at the start of the window Sean McLoughlin returning to Hull City from his loan spell.

The action on the park was immediate, with a trip to Easter Road on the first day of the month where former manager Jack Ross had secured the services of Saints right back Paul McGinn at the end of the transfer window, but the former Buddie had to be content with a place on the bench as David Gray was chosen at right back, a player Lewis Morgan tormented on multiple occasions during his Saints career and Ilkay Durmus would have much joy against during an action packed first half before the exhausted Hibs legend was replaced with McGinn at half time.

Despite the new signings, Saints were unchanged from the Aberdeen match, but the performance was in stark contrast to that defensive and unambitious display against the Dons. From early in the game the away side dominated possession and cut Hibs open with relative ease as a surprising quickness in both tempo and passing imposed Saints in a way worryingly missing in the previous two matches.

After it had emerged that Saints hadn’t scored a header or from a corner in the league all season, Conor McCarthy put that right early in the match when he met Cammy MacPherson’s out swinging corner to bullet a header past Marciano in the Hibs goal who was looking rocky once more. Mike Tyson, Cassius Clay and George Foreman combined couldn’t have saved this header though, never mind Rocky Marciano, and it was a deserved lead for the Buddies.

Hibs were rattled even further by this goal and looked about as unsteady as their manager after he heard Kirk Broadfoot had taken a pay cut to join Kilmarnock, so Saints sensed the opportunity and went for the kill. Durmus was key to this attacking intent and was going past David Gray more often than Michael Gove rolls a £20 note up in the Strangers Bar, and it was from the Turkish wingers cross that Saints doubled their lead within four minutes of the opener.

Conor McCarthy swept a glorious cross field pass to the Turk who kept the ball in with his head before driving past Gray who was running like he was carrying Andy Webster carrying a hippo on his back, and the wingers cut back was neatly dispatched into the far corner of the net with his left foot by Tony Andreu. 2-0 Saints and in all honesty, it looked as though the visitors were far from finished and the goals would now rack up quicker than a Dundalk fan can say “we play in the Champions league qualifying rounds”.

Saints continued to press, but despite adding the second goal, Tony Andreu did not bring his shooting boots for the rest of the match and shot narrowly over with Hibs all over the place after Marciano spilled a Morias shot and it was a to prove a significant moment.

Within a minute Hibs had pulled one back when Scott Allan surged forward through a gaping hole in Saints midfield and after playing in Martin Boyle on the right hand side, stroked home the resulting cross to half the deficit with the Edinburgh sides only real attack of the match so far. From here, the Saints players should have managed the game much better as they were frankly so far ahead of Hibs they could have played with the Edinburgh side for the remainder of the first half like Kirk Broadfoot happily flicking through his pop-up book about how dinosaurs are only 600 years old.

Instead of leading at the break however, Saints continued to drive forward leaving too much room for counter attacks and again Andreu fired over when a third looked likely, another key moment and the away side were punished for their lack of cutting edge when religious car manufacturer Christian Doidge powered home an admittedly outstanding header, but it was only possible due to Junior Morias losing possession around 30 yards from goal.

The striker has been used as a winger for several matches now and looks in my opinion uncomfortable being asked to fill this role as Kyle McAllister recovers from injury; and has been the target for much criticism which seems ridiculously harsh until the abuse given to Jon Obika is considered. The big hitman is of course our top scorer with eight goals this season, and although in no way he is perfect, a 6ft 2” all round player who scores twenty goals a season is not going to be playing for us as much as that annoys me to admit.

From almost the first minute at Easter Road, Obika was singled out for the entire 90 minutes by some of our supporters for everything he attempted to do. I accept he had a poor game, but to suggest he isn’t trying is ridiculous. For most of the season he has been up against two or often three centre backs with little to no support. What are people expecting, some kind of Ronaldo (the real one) type player who will bully defenders and then beat them all before rounding the keeper with a double shimmy? He came from Oxford United, a place famous for studying, not Rio de Janeiro.

Of course, anyone can go to the match and behave how they wish. I just don’t see the point in screaming to an off-form player that he is not doing very well as I honestly don’t think it will help us. However, each to their own.

The second half was far closer, but Saints had the best chances when Marciano fumbled another cross, but Saints couldn’t capitalise on this despite having three players in and around the ball. With around twenty minutes remaining Morias then flicked a header from MacPherson’s dangerous free kick inches wide with the keeper more exposed than Kirk Broadfoot’s face when he is eye ball to yolk with a scolding hot egg just out of his Sanyo, but a winner would not come for either side.

Regardless of whether we would all have taken a point beforehand or not, a 2-2 draw after being 2-0 up and dominating a large portion of the match is a disappointing outcome, although I was very encouraged by our attacking play, which makes what happened next even more frustrating.

Four days later, bottom side Hamilton Accies travelled to Paisley for the proverbial “six pointer”, with the Lanarkshire minnows three points adrift of Saints and an excellent opportunity for the home side to extend their lead over a team who had barely laid a glove on Saints in the previous three matches between the clubs.

In December Saints had battered Accies in Hamilton with a 4-4-2 formation, therefore the formula was already laid out for how to beat the club most comparable to a midge; small, annoying, unique to Scotland and seemingly impossible to get rid of. Jim Goodwin had other ideas however and opted for a 4-2-3-1 shape with Morias up front and Jamie McGrath on the right wing. Obika was relegated to the bench, a decision which made many people happy but soon enough his absence was seriously noted as Saints toiled to even stay in a match they were overwhelming favourites for.

Very early in the game large gaps appeared between Saints defence and midfield allowing Hamilton players to easily find space, resulting in the crowd who were already mystified about the formation, becoming agitated at what usually would be a strikingly early point in the game. This negativity may have carried on to the players who couldn’t string two passes together but Morias was fighting his corner very well despite the ball being lumped up to him with all the grace of Dick Campbell in a tutu skirt.

As the little Jamaican toiled with some success against the Accies backline led by the king of shithousery Brian Easton, (a player who dives so much it makes Jermain Defoe blush) the frustration of playing one up front against the team bottom of the league when we now have SIX strikers at the club was really beginning to gnaw at Saints fans like Alan Preston describing a late Hearts winner against us by Rudi Skacel.

Hamilton were in complete control, and in the massive gap between our defence and midfield equivalent only to the space between David Hopkin’s teeth, David Templeton gained possession around the twenty five minute mark and fired in a neat low shot from the edge of the box to send the 16 or 17 Accies fans wild. Around thirty seconds before this however, the Accies keeper, who you may remember from the December chapter is a Jedi/Hobbit crossbreed, had carried the ball around 2-3 yards outside the box after a slight push from Tony Andreu.

Now, it is either a free kick to Saints or Accies as there is no in-between in situations like this, primarily as it will lead to what happened in the aftermath of the match, and that is complete uncertainty.  The ref, a man called Alan Newlands who was presumably drafted in on work experience from the local blind school, needed to decide either way what the foul was, but in a repeating theme throughout the match the official did nothing and Accies scored from the resultant punt up the park by the keeper.

People have pointed out the referee let it go as Andreu pushed Yoda Baggins, however, how do we know this? Newlands missed so much that night the probability is he didn’t see any of it, and if he had blown for an Accies free kick as he probably should have done, a different passage of play would have developed with Saints having numbers behind the ball and Accies therefore unlikely to score.

The visitors continued to dominate after this, and would have doubled their lead had it not been for a sensational fingertip save by Vaclav Hladky to push a thunderbolt Ogkmpoe shot onto the crossbar, where the Accies number 99, a number chosen to honour all of the Hamilton season ticket holders, had picked up space again in that area between Saints defence and midfield.

By this point, I expected either a change of formation or even substitutes so poor had Saints been, however, Goodwin stuck with the 4-2-3-1 the entire match which seems more absurd writing this a week later than it felt at the time. At the break, Jamie McGrath was hooked for Lee Hodson and the right back went to right wing, with right winger Ryan Flynn remaining at right back. Baffled? You should be.

Saints improved in the second half, upping their game considerably from ‘complete embarrassment’ to ‘unacceptably below average’ but still equalised with around twenty minutes left when Ilkay Durmus fired in a sensational free kick to level the match up. Immediately before this, Ryan Flynn had been badly injured by Mikel Miller who received only a booking from an increasingly erratic referee, and then Jon Obika, who had replaced Morias was booked within 10 seconds of appearing on the park when he had the absolute nerve to jump for the ball with Brian Easton, who obviously collapsed to the floor with a sore ginger beard.

Newlands was far from finished though. Minutes after the Saints equaliser he awarded Accies a penalty after Hodson showed all the close control of a drunk Calum Gallacher and brought down Miller potentially outside the box, however the Accies number 11 fired his effort wide with a sense of justice prevailing as it was arguable if the forward should have been on the park in the first place. From here, Newlands simply lost the plot.

Akin Famewo was smashed by the loose elbow of David Moyo with around five minutes remaining resulting in a cut eye for the young Saints defender and possibly a red card for the Accies man, but definitely a yellow especially as Obika was booked for an aerial challenge only ten minutes beforehand. Decision? No booking and the referee standing over Famewo pointing to his watch as though he was time wasting! Yeah Alan, you are spot on, it is a known thing in football for players to ask for unnecessary stitches just to waste time in order to get a draw at home against Hamilton.

Newlands then waved play on when MacPherson was bundled over on the edge of the box and also when Jakubiak was tripped inside the box, and as he’d clearly lost his whistle by this point, when Durmus was hacked down by an Accies goon and again no foul was given, adding to the two incidents he missed earlier when Hodson was brought down in the penalty area and Foley was judged to have committed a foul after fairly dispossessing an Accies player on the edge of the box leaving him with a free shot at goal.

The accumulation of these incidents infuriated the Saints players and fans, but in the most bizarre one, Newlands blew for a phantom free kick as Saints pressed forward with a four on three situation around 25 yards from goal, and the confused Accies players needed to ask him what had happened. In a season of poor refereeing performances, this is the worst so far, but I somehow doubt we are finished.

The Scottish Cup was next, and Motherwell travelled to Paisley with the threat of over 30,000 ‘Well fans potentially sitting in the home end, but to the astonishment of nobody this didn’t happen. Incredible really, I had put this down as a definite event after Davie from Motherwell had said it was guaranteed on twitter, and 23 people liked his post.

The match was played in dreadful conditions as Storm Ciara lashed the west of Scotland, but the two sets of players produced a decent cup tie where once again the referee took centre stage with some frankly awful officiating. On this occasion the referee was an old foe of Saints, Andrew Dallas, who of course last season gave six penalties against Saints in just two matches, the majority of which were firmly in the “Are you having a laugh?” category.

Saints started the match with two up front in a 4-4-2 shape; the formation we should have used against Accies in most supporters opinion, with Jon Obika reinstated to the starting XI where he partnered Alex Jakubiak, who was making his first start for the club.  It was the home side who started the brighter with the increasingly impressive Ilkay Durmus almost opening the scoring in the fifth minute when his neat finish from a Foley cutback hit the post, and in general despite being against the wind, Saints looked the more dangerous side for the opening twenty minutes.

Despite the issues Obika and in particular Jakubiak were causing the ‘Well backline, it was the visitors that took the lead however when O’Hara hammered home a left foot shot after Hladky had saved one on one with Long, and Saints sense of injustice was multiplied considerably a few minutes later when Dallas decided he was going to intervene and ruin the match.

Earlier in the game, Dallas junior had given a foul against Jakubiak when he had turned his marker in the penalty box and had a one on one against the keeper, a very poor decision indeed but overlooked completely by what happened on this occasion. Again the on loan Watford striker was involved when his instinctive finish was saved by the foot of Gillespie in the ‘Well goal, and when MacPherson teed the rebound up for Sam Foley the stand in skipper sent a powerful shot searing towards the top corner when Liam Polworth blocked it with his hand, but Dallas was having none of it and waved play on.

The ball then fell to Lee Hodson and the right-back fired over a cross only for Peter Hartley to stop that with his hand also. Incredibly, Dallas gave a corner and ignored both claims, with TV proving on each occasion the referee got it badly wrong. What felt worse though was the record of Dallas against us. Four penalties at Ibrox, three of which were outside the box and the ‘ref’ has since admitted he knew one of them was wrong instantly but didn’t have the nerve to overturn the decision. And here he is now waving play on with arms out wide like wee Jamesy Forrest running for the ice cream van to get his ruffle bar as Motherwell played volleyball in their penalty box.

Eventually, late in the second half, Jakubiak equalised for Saints with a right foot shot across the keeper following a clever Kyle McAllister pass, but by this point Lee Hodson had limped off with a hamstring injury which looked likely to rule him out for a month. The Irishman had started the match at right back following the injury to Ryan Flynn against Hamilton on the Wednesday night, a diagnosis confirmed as a cruciate injury to the knee and like Kyle Magennis, Flynn is out for the season at least.

This left Cammy MacPherson at right back for the rest of the match but with the youngster now one of only two fit central midfielders at the club currently, the injury situation coupled with the late departures in the transfer window of poached egg Pete to Kilmarnock and Paul McGinn to Hibs leaves the club with what can only be described as a personnel crisis for the next month, unless we bring a free transfer or two in……..and that’s exactly what Jim Goodwin did when Ross Wallace was signed on the 11th February, a player who can play left back, central midfield and on either wing so will add cover where it is needed.

Thankfully, the issue for Hodson was not as bad as feared and on the Wednesday at an absolutely freezing Tony Macaroni Stadium, the right back lined up to face in form Livingston in front of the smallest crowd I have ever been at for a top-flight Saints match. Officially the attendance was given as 1200, however as this figure includes absent season ticket holders, I think it is safe to say the actual crowd was around 900, with an equal distribution between both stands.

As much as I like to criticise Livingston for practically everything they do; from having very few fans to their plastic pitch to employing more criminals than a 1975 BBC reunion party, they must be given credit for their rise from League One to a comfortable Premiership side within only four years especially as their budget is likely to be the smallest in the league.

Pretty it most certainly isn’t at times, in fact their playing style can only be compared to some kind of primitive warfare, but the results just keep coming, especially at home where they have turned the least fortress like football stadium in Scotland into an actual fortress where getting a result is about as easy as cancelling a mobile phone contract when you are blootered.

Livingston scratch and fight for everything all over the park; they are team that know their limitations just as well as their strengths and once again they edged out Saints at the West Lothian ground for the third time in the last four meetings between the clubs.

This time the difference between the sides was Lyndon Dykes, an unsurprising brute of a centre forward until someone touches him, when he then turns into the weakest thing to come out of Australia since the Students Union in Hunter Street started selling Castlemaine 4X on draught in 1997. The pivotal point in an even match was when the former Queen of the South forward bumped into Conor McCarthy into the penalty area before falling over with less conviction than Rangers title challenge, and the referee almost gleefully pointed to the spot.

On this occasion, the man in the middle was David Munro, who had a very odd outlook in what was acceptable in terms of physicality. And by this I mean Livingston could grapple, kick and hold Saints players while we were pulled up for every comparable offence. Not the first time we’ve seen a similar approach this season from a match official, and unlikely to be the last.

After a poor first half from Saints, the hope was we would come out riled up and try to take something from the match particularly as Hamilton had already been beaten by Aberdeen the previous day and both Hearts and Ross County were behind. That hope lasted all of 20 seconds, ironically the same length of time Alan Lithgow can last, and Dykes had doubled the hosts lead after some poor defending by Saints centre back pairing.

The game now looked over; however, Saints battled back and scored a very good goal when Jon Obika slotted home after a killer pass from MacPherson and suddenly hope returned. Despite excellent late chances for McCarthy and Obika however the match ended 2-1 to Livingston and Saints remain third bottom four points clear of bottom club Hearts who were thrashed at Parkhead.

Currently, there is a real depressed feeling about watching Saints. We have the ability and character to stay in matches, however we just can’t seem to do enough when matches are tight and we inevitably draw a lot, which although better than nothing will result in us being relegated in my opinion.

I’ve spoken often previously about the ‘balance’ and the team shape, and I don’t think Jim Goodwin quite has it right yet. When we defend, we make it extremely difficult for any side to break us down, but when we are set up like this, we offer practically nothing going forward. On the flip side, when we are set up to attack, we appear vulnerable to the counter and I’m not sure after the 5-2 defeat at Tynecastle that Goodwin trusts his players to do this so inevitably we have a defensive shape most weeks, but are not “nicking” many 1-0 victories like other sides tend to do. 

We are not far away from being a half decent side, however time is running out this season and it is imperative we stay up. Goodwin must find that balance or one of our many strikers finds his shooting boots for the rest of the season or it will be another very nervous end to the campaign.