With the winter break already under way, 2020 started with no football for Saints until the 18th January and the club targeting transfers very early in the new year as the need for defenders to join the squad now approaching crisis level, particularly as the very impressive and reliable Sean McLoughlin returned to his parent club Hull City at the end of 2019.
Immediately rumoured to be coming in to replace the big Irishman was his former Cork City teammate and centre half partner Conor McCarthy, the 21-year-old occasional captain of the Irish club who was considered one of the brightest defensive prospects in Ireland. Also rumoured to be joining him was Jamie McGrath, a 23-year-old playmaker who was out of contract at champions Dundalk and rated one of the best players in the Republic.
Based on how well Sean McLoughlin played for Saints, a player who went directly from Irish football to Saints with only a week or so training at Hull City in between, it was hard not to be encouraged by the potential quality of these signings and sure enough on the seventh of January it was announced that both players had agreed to join Saints.
Later in the day, another centre half joined the club when Akin Famewo moved on loan from Norwich City, but by this point the most unexpected fall out from the two earlier transfers had started to happen on social media as some Irish journalists and supporters got into a terrible state over Saints being able to sign two of the best players from their country.
Who would have thought Irish and English supporters have so much in common? Incredibly however, some of them share the same ignorant, misinformed and arrogant view on Scottish football, in particular seemingly anyone connected with Dundalk who unbeknown to the rest of the planet are a footballing giant who Pele used to dream of playing for and also recently knocked back Zlatan Ibrahamovic for having a “small time mentality”.
Social media was littered with comments that the Premiership was a “farmers league” and outside Celtic and Rangers there is “nothing”. Also, how could two good players sign for St Mirren? Who even are this mysterious club that would be thrashed off of…..(looks up the Irish league)….. those giants of Finn Harps?
On one hand I can understand the frustration of losing good players for next to nothing as it has been happening to us for long enough, and also supporters of a small nation defending the quality of their league, again something every Scottish fan has probably done at some point, with the exception of the The Rangers support who run down everything Scottish as part of their cult programming.
However, to suggest that two players leaving Ireland and signing for St Mirren are ‘lacking ambition’ is quite simply absurd. Although I personally find the English Premier League about as exciting as John Hartson talking about Celtic, in Ireland it is the Holy Grail of football. It seems practically nobody supports just an Irish team, it’s all “Dundalk and Man Utd” or “Cork City and Chelsea” and the fans in Ireland seem to have been conditioned by the Sky Sports mentality that ENGLAND IS GREAT and SCOTLAND IS A LAUGH.
The English Premier league however has three former Saints players currently playing in it and doing rather well. John McGinn and Kenny McLean of course came through our academy, but Aaron Mooy could not get a game for us and still made it to the Thomas Cook leagues, therefore even our reserves have a chance to progress to the land of money and no soul. The point is, however, a move to a club like Saints is generally the next step to playing in a richer league or moving to a bigger club in Scotland. McCarthy and McGrath were unlikely to get a move directly to any English club in the top two divisions due to the snobbery of clubs at that level, therefore a transfer to Scotland makes more sense than signing for Shrewsbury for example.
Additionally, after trying to use Saints average attendance against us as proof of this lack of ambition from the Irish duo, it emerged from an Irish journalists own research that the average crowd at St Mirren Park this season is 250% larger than the weekly average attendance in the Irish top flight and if Saints were members of the League of Ireland, our stadium would be the biggest in the country. Nice work, fellas.
Therefore, the lack of ambition comments and the slating of Saints status as a football club in comparison to the League of Ireland is nothing more than ignorance. I mean why could we easily take the best talent from Ireland? Answer, because we are a better attraction.
The most important aspect though is the players ability. There seems little doubt both McCarthy and McGrath are highly thought of by most Irish football supporters, therefore I can only hope that their opinion on individual players is more accurate than their outlook of club size. Time will tell, but early signs are very good it has to be said.
Our first match after the break was a Scottish Cup tie against Broxburn Athletic, a sixth-tier club from West Lothian who had powered through the early rounds with some impressive victories over East Stirling, Cowdenbeath and Inverurie Locos. A full week before the match, all 1600 tickets for the away stand had been sold which bizarrely seemed to upset Livingston and Hamilton supporters when Jim Goodwin praised the non-league club for his achievement. Maybe because this was TEN times what fellow West Lothian club Livingston brought to Paisley last month it hit a nerve. Who knows?
Now obviously Broxburn don’t carry an away support of that magnitude on a regular basis even though they probably are the biggest club in West Lothian, so it was apparent from social media that many locals who supported professional clubs were attending, which of course is no bad thing at all usually, until it was alleged that the semi-professional club had been warned over the behaviour of their support and in particular offensive sectarian songs in an earlier round versus Cowdenbeath.
On paper it was a straightforward task for Saints, and a victory of at least five goals was expected, however the proverbial “rustiness” experienced by players after the winter break must also be considered in these ties, therefore it was welcome we had drawn a home match against such lowly opposition.
As expected, Broxburn were superbly well organised and defended stoutly for long periods, but Saints barely needed to get out of first gear to comfortably win 3-0, which would have been double at least had it not been for an inspired performance by the visiting goalkeeper. An Obika double and a Danny Mullen strike sealed the win, however the entire match was overshadowed by extensive damage to the North Stand caused by the away support, some of whom were obviously making the trip into civilisation for the first time seeing as how Saints black and Irish players were booed throughout the match.
Smashed seats and signs will only affect the payment due to Broxburn as it will undoubtedly be deducted from the fees owed to the minnows, but reports of bottles being flung at stewards, cars being vandalised before and after the match around the stadium as well as a funny but ultimately illegal pitch invasion, makes me think that the small town has not evolved much since 1893 when Broxburn Shamrock defeated Saints in a Scottish Cup quarter final tie with both the Paisley players and the referee intimidated seriously enough by the Broxburn supporters that a complaint was sent to the SFA and the West Lothian side banned from playing a their own ground for a month.
After playing this cup match against a club where a minority of supporters appeared to have stopped evolving since the days of the caveman, Saints made the trip to Ibrox where of course many of the home supporters still have webbed feet and the prospect of growing thumbs still generations away, making the Broxburn support look like founders of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Apart from one occasion in 2010 when I covered a Saints match at Ibrox for the club website from the comfort of the press box in the main stand, I hadn’t been to the Govan ground since 2000 when around 3,000 were in attendance from Paisley; and were spat on, hit with coins, cups, lighters, batteries and basically anything the home support could get their four fingers around for the entire match by the aforementioned lizard people high up in the stand above us, as the police and stewards of course watched on unconcerned.
Since these days, the original Rangers moved the away support to a corner of the stadium so that it is more difficult for their mutants to do this, but not impossible as objects still make their way from the swamp to away support on a regular basis, so I was very much on guard as we exited the bus and made our way to the ground and sure enough a stray zombie broke ranks from the Onion Bears and attempted to scuffle with the Saints support before being apprehended by the police.
In the ground, the Rangers support attempted to make it as hostile as possible for the Saints fans (they are notoriously territorial of course except when it happens to be the matter of Scotland’s assets) and many of their supporters seemed to spend the entire match glued to our section and ignored the action on the field. What a curiously odd bunch of people they are.
I say action, but the match was a non-event and apart from a couple of routine Hladky saves the big keeper had practically nothing to do all evening apart from pick the ball out of the net on one occasion when a miskicked Barisic shot was deflected into the path of Jermain Defoe, and in a rare moment when the feather weight former England forward managed to stay on his feet inside the penalty box, he prodded out his leg to divert the ball into the net, and that was basically that.
Despite being superbly well organised and looking very difficult to break down which of course was a positive considering we had a back of five consisting of Ryan Flynn at right wing back, Paul McGinn in the middle of three centre backs and Famewo and McCarthy each side making their league debuts, Saints offered next to nothing in terms of threat with only an early MacPherson opportunity and a McCarthy header from a free kick of any real note.
The fans seemed split about this ultra-cautious approach from Goodwin, with some insisting we should attack more while others were happy to get out of Ibrox with our goal difference only one worse off; and with no clubs in the bottom six winning that evening, it was as a bonus that no damage had been done.
As the 500 or so Saints fans left the ground, easily our smallest away support of the season at the ground closest to us, the reason for a decades long boycott of Ibrox from our support became apparent as we made our way back to the buses.
Surprisingly, the Police allowed both sets of fans to leave the stadium at the same time after the match and despite a large group of cops escorting the Saints fans out of the ground it seemed inevitable trouble would follow as the Rangers fans were seriously rattled with the “banter” flowing from the away support on the way out of the stadium.
A few shouts about zombies sealed the deal, and as we made our way onto one of the buses a small pocket of Onion Bears (sounds like a 1980’s playtime snack) attacked the Saints support despite the large police presence. Not known for their intelligence (Rangers fans or onions) they were easily dealt with firstly by a bus driver and then Saints fans before the Police horses waded it and the skirmish ended with the aforementioned bears of onion arrested for their stupidity, but this repeated threat of violence at the Govan swamp is the main reason fans of all clubs steer clear when their team is scheduled to play at Ibrox.
With Aberdeen next in a match rearranged to the Sunday to allow the entire UK to, ahem, enjoy, rumours had already surfaced in the lead up to the Rangers match that both Danny Mullen and Cody Cooke had been told they will not be offered new contracts and were free to join other clubs, with the news that Mullen had put himself of the PFA ‘available’ list sealing that particular story. This was not universally popular with the Saints support it must be said when both players have their strengths, however time will tell if Goodwin has this right when the replacements are brought in.
A more pressing concern undoubtedly was the injury sustained by Kyle Magennis early in the Rangers match, when an innocuous challenge by future Livingston captain Jon Flanagan resulted in the influential youngster being stretchered off with a season ending cruciate injury to his knee. It is a huge blow for the player and team, with the drive and technical ability of Magennis probably irreplaceable for Jim Goodwin on our budget. With the prognosis now confirmed at nine months plus on the side-lines for one of our best players, we can only hope young Kyle comes back next season with no long-term issues and I’m sure every Saints fan wishes him well.
With both captain and vice-captain now unavailable through injury, Sam Foley took the armband for the Aberdeen match and partnered Cammy MacPherson in midfield with Ryan Flynn continuing at right back as Paul McGinn was surprisingly relegated to the bench, but all would become clear with this decision in the hours after the match when it was revealed the almost ever present versatile defender was a target for Jack Ross, who of course just can’t seem to help himself when it comes to our staff, and a move to Hibernian looked imminent for the third McGinn brother to play for the club.
The Dons match was broadcast on Sky with a 12.30pm kick off on Sunday, therefore the close to five and a half thousand crowd was an excellent turn out, however it is unlikely many neutrals stayed tuned to what was frankly an awful game of football. Saints played what looked like an adventurous 4-2-3-1 formation on paper and having completely outplayed Aberdeen earlier in the season in Paisley, hopes were high this could be repeated on a bitterly cold day in the town.
It soon became apparent however that the formation was more like a 4-5-1, and the only chance of the match fell to Obika just before half time when he was sent clean through by a stray McGeough pass, but the big striker sent his right foot shot crashing off the post and the match ended 0-0 in the drabbest of games only made a tad interesting by some frankly bonkers decisions by referee Don Robertson.
Perhaps Jim Goodwin feels like we had to set up so defensively as we have two new young centre backs playing together and they need to get used to top level football in Scotland, but the style of play since the Kilmarnock match when we were outstanding has been about as pretty as Dick Campbell in the morning, so I sincerely hope this is just a necessary temporary measure as safety is the only target this season.
That said, Conor McCarthy has made a splendid start to life at Saints and was the standout performer against the Dons, handling the considerable threat of Sam Cosgrove with ease. Akin Famewo has not looked so assured as yet, however the step up from under 23 football in England to the Premiership is far bigger than what McCarthy has to contend with coming from the league of Ireland, so the hope is the big Englishman settles in quickly over the next few weeks.
Of course, our creative options have been hampered by injury; with Magennis joining Kyle McAllister and Jamie McGrath on the treatment table and this helps account for our lack of chance creating in both the Aberdeen and Rangers matches. McAllister has barely featured this season, an unfortunate issue as the winger is undoubtedly our most creative player and even when he is having a quiet match can unlock any defence with his probing passes and direct runs. Therefore, the imminent return of the former Derby player to the first team could have a significant impact on Jon Obika who is looking increasingly isolated up front and being unfairly singled out by some supporters in my opinion. It wouldn’t matter if we had Davie McCrae or Doug Somner up front in the last two matches of January, if we create nothing, we won’t score goals it’s as simple as that.
McAllister or McGrath returning to the side will also help Junior Morias who has been playing as a makeshift right winger for the benefit of the team but looks far more dangerous playing up front in a two when his direct running causes defences issues, so despite a disappointing defensive driven end to January, the squad depth is reasonably good currently when you consider both MacKenzie and Broadfoot (more on him in a second) were returning from relatively long term injury. Such a personnel crisis last season would have been a complete disaster for example and would have resulted in Josh Heaton and Jeff King playing. Now just imagine Niall McGinn running at Heaton, or even Jack McGinn. Scary.
With the football finished for January, the focus for the last few days of the month was on transfers in and out of the club. The Paul McGinn transfer took a few days, but eventually was confirmed shortly after Lee Hodson returned to the club on loan from Gillingham for the rest of the season. Although the little Irishman can’t play centre half like McGinn, he can cover both full back positions and step into midfield so it is as good a replacement we could probably have got for McGinn especially when you consider the versatility of both.
Danny Mullen was a target for Dundee on transfer window deadline day, but the move broke down late in the evening by which point former Falkirk attacker Alex Jukubiak had joined the club on loan from Watford taking our striker options to five, which would be soon be six when Seifedin Chabbi joined from Turkish side Gaziantep. A former teammate of Ilkay Durmus, the big striker has a good scoring record in Europe so it will be very interesting to see if our much-highlighted lack of goals issue will be solved by the arrival of both these attacking options.
The biggest story of the deadline day however was Kirk Broadfoot leaving the club after only five months when he requested to go back to Kilmarnock with a few days of the transfer window remaining, a deal finalised late on the 31st January after the big clown shoe paid £3,000 to Saints and took a £100 per week pay cut to re-join the Ayrshire side where he is about as popular as a coronavirus infected Killie pie.
Why the big defender decided to do this is a mystery. One suggestion was that he wanted to be “closer to home”, however as Kilmarnock is only 20 miles from Paisley, I find that highly unlikely. Another is with Brexit looming at 11pm on Transfer Deadline day, Broadfoot was under the impression that Renfrewshire would remain part of the EU and he desperately wanted to be employed in Ayrshire and achieve his dream of “leaving Europe”.
I think it is simpler that, it’s the zombie month of The Loving Cup and most Rangers fans are more stupid than normal. It’s hard to tell, but this period also coincides with Rangers form bottling quicker than Frank McGarvey can shout “Albert Kidd hates the Hearts” as the mysterious potion temporarily frazzles the brain. Two weeks’ from now when the sectarian cocktail wears off Broadfoot will wake up and wonder why he is at Killie with vague memories of paying £3,000 from his own pocket to move club for a £5,200 per annum reduction in wages. Former Rangers employees and their financial management, tut tut.
Unlike Kirky, it is never dull at Saints and the next meeting between the clubs is bound to be a fraught affair, with interest likely to be a lot higher than normal in what is now being branded the ‘Poached Egg Derby’. This is of course due to the big defender deciding to closely inspect his freshly out of the microwave breakfast a few years ago and the boiling yoke exploding over his face, leaving him out of the Rangers side for a few weeks in the first ever recorded EBT case, in this instance an Egg Burnt Twat. At least the Saints players can get their microwave back at Ralston now the big man has returned to Ayrshire where the Killie board are currently making the entire stadium “Kirky Proof”.
With January over, Saints enter a period where we are playing twice a week until mid-March with February throwing up six matches for the club, including a cup tie against Motherwell who appeared outraged at only being given 1654 tickets for the match despite selling out the away stand a grand total of ZERO times since the stadium opened in 2009.
After selling out these so called precious and highly in demand tickets in a few hours…….sorry my mistake, it was four days, the suggestion was then the Lanarkshire side will “take over” the home end for the cup tie. It seems Dundalk and big Kirky weren’t the only ones having a bad month in January………………
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