With the league match at Motherwell postponed due to ‘Storm Denis’ on the 15th February, Saints had to wait three more days to play again when they were once more scheduled for a return to Fir Park in a Scottish Cup replay, with the playing surface heavier than even our supporters underpants by the end of a frankly ridiculous night of football.
Saints once again started with a 4-4-2 formation, with the only change from the Livingston match being Jamie McGrath preferred to Junior Morias on the right wing. On the bench was the long awaited sighting of striker Seifedin Chabbi, who if you believed the internet was some kind of mythical footballing god who probably didn’t even exist due to the fact he hadn’t featured since arriving at the club, but there he was in the flesh doing star jumps and everything to prove all the doubters wrong.
The conditions were far from ideal as the wind continued to howl with more regularity than Alex Rae talking about his sacking at Paisley, however one thousand Saints fans had made the trip to the former steel capital of Scotland and we watched mesmerised in the first half as the away side simply ran riot helped in no small measure by an utterly sensational forty five minutes from Jon Obika.
As I have covered before, the striker has many critics but having been isolated up top alone for most of the season I think this has been unfair, however we are now seeing the many strengths of Obika as Jim Goodwin has started to play two up front after the signing of the impressive Alex Jakubiak, and this has resulted in the man so imaginatively nicknamed “Beeks” by his peers starting to find the net on a much more regular basis.
Obika utterly bullied Motherwell in the first half, with his running power causing complete havoc. On several occasions, the striker travelled 30-40 yards with the ball as Saints had players up in support and splitting the home sides attention; it was a massive difference from the many weeks he ploughed the final third alone disheartened at the lack of support.
On one of these occasions where Obika ran with the ball, he held off several ‘Well players before finding Cammy MacPherson who in turn fed Durmus on the left hand side and the Turkish winger (who is also enjoying a fine run of form) beat his man before curling a cross into the near post where Obika gleefully volleyed home. 1-0 Saints after fourteen minutes and a well-deserved lead at that.
With the swirling wind not really giving any side a clear advantage, Saints continued to press and play some delightful football. The players were first to every second ball and each individual battle on the park was being comfortably won by a man in black and white as Motherwell could barely get out their half.
However, Saints being Saints, it was the home side who scored next when a corner held up in the wind and Conor McCarthy sclaffed his clearance straight back out to the taker Liam Polworth. With no Saints player in a hurry to close down the midfielder, he cut inside before sending a low shot through Hladky to equalise for the ‘Well after twenty-nine minutes. A frustrating moment without a doubt and a warning sign for Saints from the wide areas that was not heeded in the second half.
Saints shrugged this goal off however, and within six minutes were 3-1 up. Cammy MacPherson was involved again, who along with Foley was simply running the match, and his delightful free kick to the back post was volleyed home by Obika via the upright, and in the confusion at the opposite end of the stadium where the Saints fans were situated, it took a good few seconds for the goal to register before the celebrations started.
Sensing the kill, Saints went for the ‘Well jugular and increased their lead almost immediately when Obika powered his way through the petrified home defence once more, but when his shot was blocked, Sam Foley followed up by volleying towards goal only to be denied by the feet of Gillespie who could only watch as the ball spun off Peter Hartley and nestled in the net. 3-1 Saints, and utter bedlam from the Saints support again, but the team still weren’t finished.
After MacPherson had been denied a fourth by an outstanding Gillespie save, Durmus wriggled clear again on Saints left and his cross was deflected into the path of Foley who took a touch before finding the bottom corner of the net with a neat finish from the edge of the box. A thoroughly deserved and justified 4-1 lead at half time that nobody in the Motherwell end could grumble about.
The fervour of excitement in the away stand could be practically tasted at half time but I was worried that we could potentially blow this by becoming too defensive and inviting pressure onto us, leaving all the momentum with the home side who were bound to really go for it to try and save their season.
Sure enough, Goodwin changed formation from the 4-4-2 that had simply annihilated Motherwell in the first half to a 4-5-1 with Obika up front himself, a role that doesn’t seem to suit him or the team. With zero expectation from a low-key home support by this point, the last things Saints needed to do was give them any encouragement but the new formation allowed exactly that, and the visitors were practically non-existent as an attacking threat for the rest of the ninety minutes, incredible really considering the utter pasting Saints had given ‘Well in the first period.
One-time Saints target Tony Watt started the comeback when his tame shot straight at Hladky was deflected beyond the keeper by an outstretched Saints foot, and for the next twenty minutes Saints sat so deep at one-point Calum Waters was almost back in Renfrewshire. We simply invited wave after wave of attacks onto us and in the space of one crazy minute in the second half the home side drew level, and the annoying thing is they didn’t need one shot on goal to do so.
In the seventy third minute, Rolando Aarons whipped in a cross down Saints left where Calum Waters was struggling badly, and it evaded everyone including Hladky who could do little as the ball found the corner of the net. Seconds later, Alan Campbell stormed forward in the same area and his cross was deflected high into the air by Foley, and the ball spun up and beyond Hladky for a fortunate but overall deserved equaliser for the home side.
The ‘Well had scored three scrappy and basically lucky goals, but we had allowed it to happen due to our mind numbingly stupid tactics. For the last twenty minutes we hung on desperately for extra time which we just managed, and although we probably shaded the additional period it must be said that the anger and frustration towards the manager was growing by the minute in the Saints end.
With penalties now deciding the fate of both sides, Jamie McGrath slotted home the first with little fuss and Hladky then does what he does by expertly stopping the first ‘Well kick from Liam Donnelly. Tony Andreu then stepped up and hit the worst penalty in the history of football high into the back of the away stand, clearing the crossbar by around ten feet. Words honestly failed me at the time, so I burst out laughing. NASA have since sent a search mission to retrieve the ball.
Tony Watt then attempted to copy Andreu, but no player on the planet could have kicked it as high as the Frenchman at that angle, although the former Celtic man gave it a good go and cleared the bar by a few feet. Incredibly after four kicks, only one scored and still advantage Saints.
Cammy MacPherson was up next, but the man who finished the match captain after Sam Foley was injured, had his kick superbly saved by Gillespie and the ‘Well were back in it once more. This time they took their chance by finally scoring via Aarons and sadly just failing to enter Dundee United territory in a shootout. McAllister and then Obika scored for Saints, sandwiched in-between another ‘Well success from Polworth, but the final penalty taken by Jermaine Hylton was sent wide by the home side’s winger and in the most convoluted and St Mirren way possible we were now in the quarter finals and the fans celebrated, although for me it was a strange feeling masked by the bizarre events of an incredible night of football which cost just £12, that’s a bargain £1.50 a goal.
Whatever happens this season, or probably even this decade, it will be unlikely that we see another game like this. Everything that is both good and bad about not only Jim Goodwin’s team but Saints in general was evident. Thrilling attacking play combined with self-doubt and some questionable defending made it the proverbial rollercoaster. Every fan of every club will say it is the same for them, but I can only talk about us and it is a bonkers existence following this club. Imagine supporting anyone else, must be boring.
With Storm Denis turning into Storm Ellen despite no break in the bad weather (why was it not just the same storm?) the match scheduled for Friday night on the 21st February against bottom club Hearts was postponed as Paisley suffered rainfall similar to something you would read about in the Old Testament, which led to some supporters of the Edinburgh club suggested we “bottled” it and had flooded the pitch intentionally.
I’ve heard or read some stupid things this season; the referees and SFA conspiring against Rangers is one, Aberdeen play good football is another, and now Hearts fans accusing anyone of “bottling” is added to it. The mentions of 1986 were also out in force, and it is incredible that Hearts or their supporters have never taken ownership of that season and genuinely believe their failure to even draw on the final day is our fault. If you believed them, Frank McGarvey scored four first half own goals for Celtic, jumped in a helicopter and flew to Dens Park before coming on for Dundee for the last ten minutes and scoring twice as Alex Miller sang the Fields of Athenry.
Even if the pitch was playable, the vast flooding to the area immediately surrounding the stadium would likely have led to a postponement in any case, yet the Hearts fans were utterly confused as it wasn’t raining in Edinburgh. That’s right, they believe that the weather is the same everywhere in the world!
This meant that our next match was now at Fir Park once more, and on the Tuesday 25th February, six hundred Saints fans made the short journey back to Lanarkshire for the rearranged league match postponed from ten days previously. Saints had the opportunity to move six points clear of Hearts and four from Hamilton who had drawn 0-0 against Motherwell at the weekend despite the Fir Park side being down to ten man for most of the match.
Saints though, continued from where they left off against Motherwell in the second half of the cup match and were thankful to Vaclav Hladky who kept his side in the match during a poor first period where Motherwell led 1-0 thanks to a Liam Donnelly penalty after Akin Famewo had tripped Aarons in the box on twelve minutes. Donnelly, who had missed in the penalty shootout the week before, just managed to squeeze his kick between Hladky and the post and then bizarrely ran past the Saints support with his finger to his lips before engaging with the pre-pubescent high pitched gang of Motherwell ultras in the corner of the home stand.
After this opener and for the remainder of the half, Hladky was the most important player on the park and although most of his saves were in the ‘routine’ variety, the Czech keeper made them all look easy due to his magnificent positioning and anticipation. How we will miss him when he is gone!
The second half was much improved from Saints who dominated the rest of the match, quickly equalising when Lee Hodson darted between multiple Motherwell defenders before crossing low for Obika, who bundled the ball high into the net from a yard at the second attempt to equalise and notch his eleventh goal of the season. From here, Saints looked by far the most likely winner of the match as Motherwell retreated further and further, however the biggest obstacle the away side had to overcome by far was in the shape of referee David Munro as his decisions went from baffling to genuine borderline scandalous.
The failure to see obvious corner or free kicks can always be put down to pure incompetency and the likelihood that the referee had never even played the game at amateur level, however Saints winning goal led to Munro literally making up his own rules.
Just before this decisive goal as precursor for the Munro show, Peter Hartley pulled down Obika who had cleverly used his body to go clear through on the left side around twenty-five yards from goal. The referee played advantage which was fair enough and this allowed Durmus to skip past the Motherwell defender once more who scythed the Turkish winger just outside the box. Incredibly, Munro did not even talk to the ‘Well centre back despite him stopping two Saints players reaching the penalty area at the very least, and the furious reaction from Saints players and supporters seemed to backfire as a petulant Munro took the huff.
Minutes later, Andreu’s cross from the right skipped through to Durmus who nonchalantly flicked the ball up with his left foot from fifteen yards before sending an accurate volley searing past Gillespie to give Saints a vital lead with only three minutes remaining. After failing to secure victory despite leading by two goals at Easter Road in January and three goals at Fir Park the week before, understandably there was a nervousness about the distinct possibility we could throw away yet more points, so Saints decided to do what every other club on the planet does in these circumstances and ‘run the clock down’, a rare opportunity for us this season it has to be said as usually we are on the receiving end of such tactics.
Junior Morias was firstly introduced for Jon Obika, but as the Jamaican was waiting to come on, Hartley was short with a pass to Declan Gallagher and Durmus nipped in to round the ex-Barlinnie team captain and approach the penalty area, but the Scottish international must have thought he was at a house party again and bizarrely brought down the Turkish winger by the throat. After only cautioning the 2014 Scottish street baseball champion, the referee decided that the Morias substitution was a time wasting exercise and therefore booked Akin Famewo who only happened to have the ball at the half way line as it was kicked to him, but as the substitution hadn’t been made and Durmus was receiving treatment nobody could understand why the defender had been yellow carded for timewasting.
Saints took the free kick short to Morias who used his considerable strength to shield the ball at the corner flag, a very frustrating thing for the opposition but a tactic used once again by every club on the planet on a regular basis. As Motherwell players battered off the Saints forward trying to get the ball, Morias had his foot on it a good foot from the touchline. Suddenly the whistle went, and Munro had decided to award Motherwell a goal kick despite the ball not going out of play. It was simply outrageous and the referee’s body language could only be described as an angry petulant child who seemed to take great pleasure in upsetting once more Saints players and supporters.
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Morias was involved once more when Saints expertly worked the ball to him, but with a clear shot at goal he dragged his low shot wide of the target, however the away side had secured three points to increase the gap at the bottom. A great night’s work despite the efforts of Munro.
The final match of a hectic month was the Scottish Cup quarter final against Aberdeen at home, played on a Saturday night on the 29th February in the middle of yet more ridiculous weather but most of us had lost track of what name had been assigned to this particular weather front. It was Saints fifth quarter final of the century, and having only won once in the previous four including an extremely painful defeat to Gretna in 2006 and an equally hard one to take against Aberdeen in 2011 when the Dons scored a scarcely deserved 95th minute equaliser before prevailing in the replay, it was a massive opportunity for the players to progress to a semi-final.
The W7 section had a fantastic display before the match pleading with the players to show the ‘Spirit of 87”, however the days of Abercromby, Money and Wilson seemed a million years ago as Saints tamely went out the cup after losing 2-0 to an Aberdeen side who were about as exciting as a Robbie Neilson interview.
The key point in the match was in the seventh minute when Lewis Ferguson curled home a marvellous outside of the foot shot past Hladky. His father Derek, would have been “Yoojly” proud of his son who he would describe as “Yooj diver” had he the nerve to actually admit young Lewis goes down quicker than anyone who got in the way of him and Ian Durrant in a 1988 Glasgow city centre kebab shop.
Joining Ferguson in the diving squad that night was Matt Kennedy, currently the biggest cheat in Scottish football for many seasons and someone who is unable to stay on his feet should anyone go near him on the park, something he has been doing for a while before his time at the Dons. These repeated embarrassing swan dives should be hammered on an ongoing basis by the SFA and SPFL, and the little Ayrshire man is nothing short of a disgrace as a footballer.
As Saints enjoyed around 60% possession during the match, including spells where we seemed to have the ball for literally minutes at a time but looked as likely to break Aberdeen down as Derek McInnes’ training methods being adopted by Barcelona, however the Dons sacrificed possession in the knowledge we probably didn’t have the players to break them down, and they were right as we didn’t even nearly score.
The lack of bravery from our players was telling, with the exception of McAllister and Durmus who were almost always positive when in possession, but this was not nearly often enough. Sam Foley’s drive from midfield was also commendable, but nobody else on the park attempted a killer pass or even a long shot apart from a McGrath effort which Lewis could have saved blindfolded.
There was far too much sideways and back passes with nobody taking any real control of the ball and the players seemed to lack belief they could back into the match. It was bitterly disappointing and by the time Aberdeen scored a late penalty in stoppage time, all hope of a semi-final appearance had evaporated like the integrity of BBC Sportsound, and the Saints support drudged wearily into the cold damp night frustrated at how things had gone.
It was a bad end to a decent month, but we can now focus on retaining Premiership status in what has been a difficult season for Jim Goodwin as he has juggled injury, transfer requests and a frantic search for new players at the start of the season. We are currently in a relatively good place in the league as Hamilton and Hearts toil below us, and a couple of wins in March could very well all but seal survival, especially should they come against St Johnstone at the ‘86ers at home.
Despite that cup defeat, if Saints can clinch tenth place over the next couple of months in my opinion that can only be classed as a successful season. Anything else at this stage, is a failure. Don’t let us down, Jim.
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