2019/20 – Chapter Five. November 2019.

The month of November kicked off with a visit to Tynecastle in a fixture most of us were looking forward to due to Hearts being utterly abysmal under the famous Scottish football ‘specky hotdog’ that is Craig Levein. However in the lead up to the match the Hearts board made the decision to dispense of the former Scotland manager as head coach, remove him from his Director of Football role, sack him from the head of The Craig Levein Society and replace him as head of the Hoof Ball department with Austin McPhee, who was previously chairperson of the mature student committee at Cardonald College.

Although Levein should have been sacked about eight months prior to this for the act of signing Ryan Edwards alone, it was still a shock considering he had taken “Empire building” to extraordinary levels at Tynecastle where apparently he made every football decision at the club, including of course signing Edwards from Partick Thistle, convincing Alan Stubbs he was from the V9 academy and loaning him to St Mirren almost immediately.

In most environments, someone with the sheer arrogance to use his position on the board to appoint himself as manager, overruling the chief executive in the process, then build in mechanisms via his director role at the club so that no individual at the club could sack him apart from himself, would be banished from the club for eternity especially after winning once in about a year, but Levein was effectively given a telling off and demoted to club mascot or some other nonsense before I predict he returns in a new role as Head of the ‘Levein for Hearts’ department and convinces the board in 2021 that only he can manage the club again in addition to running this vital part of the football operation.

With Levein gone however, it was a tricky time to play Hearts who had decided not to sell cheaper £20 lower stand tickets to Saints fans and the only option available was a £29 ticket for the upper tier, which is frankly extraordinary never mind the fact it was our third away match in succession.

What made the match awkward was not the price of course, but the fact with Levein gone the Hearts support and players were undoubtedly given a massive confidence boost. No more star jumps, Christophe Berra.

Beforehand, I considered two things essential to win. Firstly, don’t concede early to give Hearts any kind of momentum. Secondly, try to take the lead and watch the almost permanently raging diet staunchade Tynecastle support lose the plot as we added to their woes. Unfortunately, this didn’t go to plan at all.

Giving Hearts another shot in the arm was the return of Steven Naismith from injury, who even at 33 years old is still one of the best forwards in the division and the Scotland international would give Saints forwards a lesson in how to lead the line and cause chaos throughout what would turn out to be an utterly forgettable ninety minutes in the capital.

As the teams lined up for the minute silence before the match, McPhee had been confirmed as Hearts interim manager for the entire month of November following confirmation that he can plug his GHD’s into the dugout area, a decision only clarified after Levein had been moved to head of the external plug point department, but nobody could have predicted what would happen next, well most of it anyway.

Saints had been very secure defensively of course all season and going into the match had the third best record in the division with the caveat being goals had been as rare as Prince Andrew using a roll-on Lynx Africa set. I have mentioned before about Jim Goodwin trying to find the correct balance on these pages, and the next ninety minutes would prove this again.

Like the rest of us, Goodwin clearly believed we could win this match, and perhaps with the justifiable confidence that the defence was more than reliable, the manager started with two up-front as Danny Mullen partnered Jon Obika and Tony Andreu was tucked in behind them in the number 10 role. It was courageous without doubt but considering we had lost six matches in a row away from home in the league this season it may also have been reckless in hindsight.

Only six minutes into the match, the setback of losing an early goal was realised when Naismith peeled off his marker and fired Hearts into the lead from a corner. It was the third time this season a goal had been conceded as a result of poor defending at a corner kick, and it did seem strange Obika was tasked with the job of marking the clever Naismith.

Saints reacted well to this however and backed by almost a thousand supporters making fantastic noise were soon level with a fine goal. The move was started by Sam Foley whose pinpoint crossfield pass was nodded into the path of Obika by Andreu and the big Englishman lashed a sweet volley from close range which seared high past the Hearts keeper to level matters. Game on.

As the Obika song blasted out gloriously from the Saints end, the players looked to have the measure of Hearts and if we could take the lead the grumbles of the home support would soon turn into major groans and the match was undoubtedly there to win, so it was imperative we kept it tight for the next twenty minutes or so and waited on the inevitable opportunities that would follow.

Hearts on the other hand had decided to play giant forward Uche Ikpeazu on the right wing directly against Calum Waters, a tactic Hearts also used in the Paisley match, and the on-loan Killie left back badly struggled with the size difference and strength to his opponent, which was akin to Mark Francois taking on Rambo at arm wrestling, and the Saints defender was given a torrid time.

The big Hearts forward played a major role in the next goal as Saints switched off at a throw in and Broadfoot, Paul McGinn and Hladky got in an almighty mess allowing Ikpeazu to smash the ball across the goal mouth where the unfortunate Sean McLoughlin could do little as the ball struck him and arrowed into the net. It was a tough one to take, and a mixture of poor defending and bad luck, but Saints weren’t behind for long.

A few minutes later Hladky’s goal kick sailed over Christophe Berra’s head, whose timing was all over the place due to the lack of star jumps he is now being asked to do, and Danny Mullen found himself one on one with the keeper. Mullen of course has proven to be a fine instinctive striker during his time at Paisley but perhaps lacks the end product when he has time to think about it, a common problem for many forwards and for wee Danny also an issue in quizzes about Still Game it has to be said.
Mullen however made absolutely no mistake on this occasion and drew the keeper out and wide before slotting a brilliant finish across him and into the corner of the net to make it 2-2 in an extraordinary opening period of the match.

Saints surely had to now cease the opportunity as Hearts defence was like a Charlie Nicholas analysis of a goal and simply all over the place. Hearts were a shambles to be honest, worse than Nicholas trying to describe Jeff Stelling forgetting his glasses. The issue that day of course was unfortunately our own defence was somehow worse, and this was as good as it got for Saints this afternoon.

With half time approaching a McLoughlin clearance which was heading for a throw in ricocheted off Broadfoot and landed at the feet of Michael Smith on the right who crossed to the back post and Bozanivic headed Hearts 3-2 in front to complete a brilliantly exciting half of football admittedly, but one where defences looked as comfortable as Prince Andrew describing what the interior of Pizza Hut in Woking looks like.

Not even a minute into the second half, another cross from our left-hand side was headed home by Walker after Broadfoot had failed to track his marker and it was 4-2. That was four goals conceded from the wide areas, and the attacking approach from Saints had seen the full backs as isolated as Craig Levein at a “show us your medals” party.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing after this goal was the body language of the players suggested they were defeated, and only good luck and some decent goalkeeping prevented Hearts going on the rampage. Eventually, Hearts scored a fifth when Mulraney curled in a 20-yard shot after more shambolic defending from the wide areas and despite Saints creating and missing multiple opportunities after this, the game was well gone and the defeat comprehensive.

It was a tough one to take. However, the timing of the match was absolutely crucial in my opinion and the sacking of Levein played a part in the outcome, as did our attacking approach which left our defence exposed to a team with Naismith back in it for the first time in several months. Goodwin had been outthought by Austin McPhee, essentially a strange loner type guy who hangs about Student Unions smelling like weed and beef pot noddle. However, our manager will learn, and I’ll be surprised if something similar happens this season………….

A few weeks later after the international break, Hearts were thumped by Kilmarnock at Rugby Park which was hardly a surprise given the boost of Levein leaving had now well and truly worn off. You suddenly don’t become a good team overnight. As I said, it was timing as much as anything that day at Tynecastle for us.

As this was happening down the road in Ayrshire, Saints were up against Ross County at Paisley for our first match in home in five weeks. In the previous match between the clubs, Saints had effectively been robbed of at least a point when a last gasp winner from Marcus Fraser gave the home side three points, but I think we had all seen that the Dingwall side weren’t up to much and should we play anywhere near the level we can, surely victory will be confirmed.

Those levels though were nowhere to seen early on however and were about as absent as Boris Johnson at parents night as Saints made hard work of a laboriously predictable Ross County side. Mid-way through the first half giant journeyman striker Brian Graham toe bashed in an opener for the Highland minnows before bizarrely celebrating wildly in front of an astonished West Stand who had no idea who he was until that moment.

I’m not sure what Graham was doing to be honest, perhaps he believed playing for Morton in the third tier many years ago would make him well known to Saints fans, but I’d guess he’s about as recognisable to most of us as Alex Rae is to a MENSA application form.

Saints toiled to be get back into the match, but a scrappy Sean McLoughlin goal just before half time evened matters up allowing the home side to go in level at the break and then dominate the rest of the match. The fact I won a box of donuts due to this goal is of course irrelevant, but they were magnificent and well enjoyed by the hardcore Panda club young hooligans.

Just as it looked as though the winner wouldn’t come for Saints after almost forty five minutes of second half pressure the imperious Sam Foley popped up with his first goal for the club after a beautiful interchange between substitutes McAllister and Andreu resulted in the Frenchman playing a sensational disguised reverse pass into the path of Saints energetic midfielder who made little mistake with a crashing left foot drive which he hammered high into the net via the cross bar. Three deserved points and things were looking up again.

A few days later, Hibernian travelled to Paisley for a rearranged fixture with former Saints manager and focus of the bizarre online cult, (TCOJR) Jack Ross the dugout. I’m not going over this again, Ross was a very good Saints manager with extremely questionable morals when it came to the crunch, but interestingly in the lead up to the match he stated to a local Edinburgh paper he “owed Saints everything” which smacks in the face of his Paisley fan club who insist on the opposite when defending their man.

The match was as one sided as you could possibly imagine, with Saints dominating a very average Hibs side for almost the entire ninety minutes, yet the away side took the lead with their first effort on goal. Well I say an ‘effort’, but, it was about as clinical as wiping down a surgery table with a pair of OJ Simpsons golf gloves, when a tame Doidge header looped off the back of Gary MacKenzie’s head and deceived Hladky who was comfortably saving the initial effort but had little chance with the diversion.

Despite Saints commendable efforts, a combination of poor finishing and the post kept the home side from equalising for well over an hour after this as the players won practically every second ball continuously, and as so often happens when teams are fighting relegation, during a rare Hibs counter attack the rapid Martin Boyle was taken out by MacKenzie late in the match in the penalty box.

From Hibernian’s second effort in the entire match this time via the penalty spot, Stevie Mallan made no mistake in doubling the Edinburgh sides lead. I suspect many a seat was kicked after this.

Deep into injury time Junior Morias scored his first goal for the club with a smart finish, but Saints fine home record came to an end in a match they should have won, and a very frustrating defeat which felt like a hammer blow at the time resulted from an otherwise pretty good performance. This one however felt particularly frustrating, possibly due to Ross returning or the annoying Jason Naismith, but more likely the fact we played well enough to win comfortably.

Four days later, Saints travelled to Aberdeen, but unfortunately the Norovirus prevented me from doing so meaning the £32 I paid for match tickets and £24 bus fees for my son and I went to complete waste. I guess for football clubs that is one benefit from insisting on money up front.

As I didn’t see the match at all, I can only go by what the media and other fans said about the game, and it seemed to follow a similar pattern to the Hibernian match where Saints dominated yet still lost 2-1.

Even Willie Miller admitted Saints were the better side, which made me think perhaps he was being held at gun point or his brain had been hijacked by someone more sensible, but ultimately as everyone knows hard luck stories won’t keep us up and we can’t continue this trend of losing matches we dominate.

With a few minutes remaining, Saints goal scorer Jon Obika darted past Aberdeen goalkeeper Joe Lewis in the penalty area and had a tap in for an equaliser but was unceremoniously taken out by the arm of the Aberdeen captain, with no intention whatsoever of playing the ball. A straight red card should have followed, but surprisingly only a yellow was shown and again Miller stated this was wrong and should have been an ordering off. At this point I was picturing a deranged bandana wearing Chick Young holding a revolver to that big shiny head of Miller, insisting he told the truth.

I think we all knew what was coming next when Tony Andreu had his penalty saved by the English keeper and then hit the rebound straight at the grounded Aberdeen number one with the goal gaping. In truth, the penalty kick was about as tame as a Rob McLean dubbed over commentary and even David Cornell would have saved both efforts meaning the argument about whether Lewis being on the park or not had an impact on the outcome was probably irrelevant.

This left Saints with a very disappointing three points from four matches in November, where in three of these fixtures they had been the better team but lost on two occasions. Luck is part of football, both good and bad, but at what point do we consider that the bad luck and missed chances are in fact a result of our own shortcomings?

Saints did manage to score in every fixture during the month, but the previously resolute defence has started to concede at a much more typical rate of a side fighting relegation. It goes back to the balance of the side needing tweaked and we haven’t quite nailed it yet. However, as we are now approaching the midpoint of the season, we can no longer use the excuse that it is a transitional period. We need to get this right and quickly.

November Ratings

Ryan Flynn8.0
Sam Foley7.5
Jonathan Obika7.3
Sean McLoughlin6.8
Gary MacKenzie6.8
Ilkay Durmus6.5

Overall League Ratings

Sam Foley7.6
Gary MacKenzie7.2
Sean McLoughlin7.1
Ryan Flynn7.1
Vaclav Hladky7.1
Jonathan Obika6.9
Kirk Broadfoot6.9
Kyle Magennis6.9
Paul McGinn6.8

Overall Season Ratings (all competitions)

Sam Foley7.6
Sean McLoughlin7.1
Vaclav Hladky7.1
Jonathan Obika6.9
Kirk Broadfoot6.9
Gary MacKenzie6.8
Cammy McPherson6.8
Ryan Flynn6.7
Paul McGinn6.6

Man of the Match Awards

PlayerMan of the Match
Sam Foley4
Cammy MacPherson3
Vaclav Hladky3
Jon Obika2
Paul McGinn2
Ryan Flynn2
Sean McLoughlin2
Jack Baird1
Kirk Broadfoot1
Kyle Magennis1

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