2019/20 – Chapter Six. December 2019.

December is always a crucial month within the season with seven games to play before the winter break and on this occasion Saints were given four home matches including the two fixtures post-Christmas, therefore the hope was the team could pick up some much needed points after slipping to the bottom of the Premiership following the disappointment of the Hibernian/Aberdeen double header at the end of November where the team took no points despite being the better side in both fixtures.

Motherwell were the visitors to Paisley on the fourth of December, a cold Wednesday night where Saints were rocked with the news Sam Foley was out for a few weeks and Kirk Broadfoot missing probably until the new year at least, with the midfielder in particular a massive loss considering the significant impact he has had since joining the club in the summer.

Early in the match, Gary MacKenzie pulled up with what looked like a hamstring injury and suddenly Saints were down to just Sean McLoughlin as the only available centre half at the club following the loan of Jack Baird to Morton in late August. To compensate this early loss that evening, Paul McGinn went to centre back with Cammy MacPherson replacing MacKenzie and slotting in at right back in a defence so makeshift all that was missing was Benedict Cumberbatch at left back.

It’s impossible to know of course as events may have turned out the same in any case, but this improvised defence appeared to be the catalyst for what followed that evening as one of the poorest home performances in the top flight I can remember in thirty-five years of watching Saints unfolded in front of our eyes. Motherwell were simply streets ahead of Saints after this reshuffle and went comfortably in 2-0 at the break thanks to a James Scott double, aided once again by some extremely poor defending down Saints left hand side where even a labour majority in a marginal seat looks more secure than us.

The second half didn’t improve at all, and it took Saints 89 minutes to register a shot on target by which point we were 3-0 down and lucky it wasn’t more. It was dire stuff and reminded me of the murky days under Davie Hay where the bearded scampi fry managed to take shite football onto a level never previously seen before on a weekly basis.

Thankfully, that poor level of consistency is not something we can attribute to the current Saints side where substandard performances haven’t been anywhere as near regular, although with the Hearts match from November still fresh in the memory it was worrying nonetheless that we could be ripped apart so easily by a good side of course, but one with a budget comparable with our own.

Following this worrying defeat, on the Saturday Saints travelled on a miserable day to a miserable place, The Foys hawf a Stadium in Hamilton, where on a dark sodden afternoon around a thousand buddies travelled with the news that McLoughlin remained the only fit centre half at the club for the match and Foley once more faced being absent from the side.

It wasn’t great news and added to our simply tragic general record against Accies away from home as well as seven defeats in a row on our travels so far this season and that abject Motherwell performance still trying to be processed by the supporters, my expectations were lower than the collective morals of Livingston’s defence in all honesty. I should have known better however, and as always seems to happen Saints surprised me with probably our best performance of the season so far.

The line up that afternoon was bold again from Goodwin, a straight 4-4-2 with the surprise inclusion of Ryan Flynn at right back and Cammy MacPherson pushed into the centre of midfield alongside Kyle Magennis. Durmus and Kyle McAllister occupied the wing positions with Morias and Obika up front. Paul McGinn deputised at centre back once more and I was more than a bit concerned I have to be honest as I took my seat in the away stand with what I am convinced was the actual coffee Baldrick made in ‘Blackadder goes fourth’ with mud and spit.

£1.60 for this abomination was the final insult after the Lanarkshire plankton charged £34 for me and my son to watch the game making it one of the most expensive grounds in Scotland for a family to watch football. I say “ground” but what it really is of course is something a six-year-old kid would design in his or her bedroom with anything that was lying about the house or garden.

The match kicked off in quite appalling conditions under floodlights so dim Brad Lyons would have needed binoculars to see even his hands, but the driving wind and in particular rain was having such an effect on the early stages of the match the ball was like a feather in a hurricane. However, once Saints worked out that the best tactic was to go direct up to Obika and Morias, the away side controlled almost the entire match and were vastly superior to a poor Accies team as Magennis and MacPherson dominated the midfield area.

Ten or so minutes into the match, Obika held off Sam Stubbs with all the ease of his Dad signing a rubbish footballer, and his clever lay off to the left was volleyed towards goal by Durmus where Accies keeper Luke Southwood, a hybrid of Jedi and Hobbit, lamely parried the shot onto the post. A close call, but the pattern of the match was firmly set as the Hamilton back-line couldn’t cope with Saints forward players all afternoon.

Playing against the wind, Saints still dominated, and as they created good openings on a regular basis particularly down the left where Durmus was impressing, the wind seemed to be hampering the final ball with only an Obika piledriver from twenty yards which scraped the post worthy of note despite the dominance. With the wind in our favour in the second half though, there was genuine belief the team would finally end the awful away form on the road.

Merely ten seconds into the second half, a high punt from MacPherson had Morias scurrying after the ball and he held off both Stubbs and McMahon before his shot was deflected onto the post by Gogic. From here, Saints battered Accies for the rest of the match, creating multiple great opportunities, but when Cammy MacPherson curled a brilliant 25-yard free kick from wide on the left off the underside of the bar on 50 minutes, I began to think we were jinxed on our travels this season.

The thought was hardly out my mind when the ball broke to MacPherson twenty yards out a minute later and on this occasion the young midfielder made no mistake when he rattled a low thunderbolt beyond Frodo Kenobi in the Accies goal to give Saints the most deserved lead perhaps in the history of football. Little changed however after this and still Saints flooded forward looking to kill the match off.

MacPherson, who was already having a fine match, grew in confidence after this goal and for the remainder of the game along with Magennis, simply bossed the midfield with an outstanding couple of performances which augurs extremely well for the future. Having watched MacPherson star for the under 20’s on multiple occasions, it is only a matter of time in my opinion before he becomes a first team regular in central midfield, and his dead ball delivery is something we have badly missed since Stevie Mallan left for the capital of Brexitshire and moved to Barnsley where the local mutton chopped yahoos gazed in awe at his trim eyebrows.

Introduced from the bench for McAllister with around half an hour left was Cody Cooke, who had returned from injury and was making his first appearance in the league this season fresh in the knowledge he is the only player left at the club signed by that big clown shoe himself, Alan Stubbs. The big striker terrorised the former Saints manger’s son for the last period of the match in a kind of twisted revenge for his father associating Cooke’s name forever with Jeff King, and I have never seen the Saints man look so sharp or influential in a match before. It genuinely was like having a new player, a cliché I despise incidentally.

After warming the hands of the ninja halfling with a stinging drive, Cooke then kept himself onside before running through on goal and being unceremoniously taken out on the edge of the box by Alex Gogic, who surely must have blagged a gig at Hamilton after being found roaming the woods eating crows. Gogic was sent off for his efforts, and Saints comfortably managed the rest of the game despite injuries to Paul McGinn and Kyle Magennis left man of the match MacPherson playing centre back at the end.

The match finished the most one-sided single goal victory I have certainly ever been to at that point in my life, and a very welcome first points on the road this season lifted Saints to ninth position. However, it became clear early in the following week that Broadfoot, MacKenzie and stand in centre half Paul McGinn wouldn’t make the Livingston match, and with Jack Baird of course currently on football remand at Morton this left Saints in the incredible position of having no fit first team defenders permanently contracted to the club available for selection.

We did of course have two loan defenders; Calum Waters and Sean McLoughlin, and with converted winger to central midfielder and now stand in right back Ryan Flynn deputising at full back, this left Goodwin a decision to make about who would partner the influential McLoughlin at centre half, with suggestions ranging from Stephen McGinn, Cody Cooke, Sam Foley and Alan Wardrop.

The manager went for none of these however, with Foley still injured and Wardrop currently training for his bare bum boxing match in the New Year, young Scott Glover was drafted in from the under 20’s squad to make his first team debut. It was as difficult a task as you could imagine for the youngster, with an inexperienced centre half to his left and a makeshift right back the other side, before we even consider the weather and the fact Livingston are about as in your face as Alan Lithgow at a hen do.

On a day so cold the match mascot was a penguin, Saints makeshift defence struggled with the howling wind and terrible underfoot conditions with Ryan Flynn guilty of miskicking a clearance after thirteen minutes allowing Souda to run through and place a smart left foot shot inside Hladky’s far post to give the away side the lead to the delight of their 100 fans.

Saints kept at it though, and apart from Glover, were unchanged from the Hamilton match with Durmus again impressing down the left where although he might not always get the better of his man, there is little doubt he goes about attacking with relentless purpose. Up top, Obika and Morias were linking well again, and the equaliser came through the pair as the latter outmuscled two Livingston goons before threading a beautiful cross onto Morias who slotted it under the keeper and into the net.

With Saints having the advantage of the wind second half, it was important to go in level at half time, but with the last touch of the ball on 45 minutes, some calamitous defending and goalkeeping resulted in Jim Guthrie having a free header from 5 yards and he steered it into the net from a Sibbald free klick to give the guests the lead again.

Early in the second period, Glover was caught out of position and when the covering McLoughlin slipped, Souda was in once more and after some fine close control on his chest volleyed home neatly from 10 yards to extend the lead of the visitors to two goals and make the score 3-1. At this point I considered the game over, in fact I thought that at 2-1 as we were so fragile defensively at the fault of absolutely nobody I would add, but the introduction of Tony Andreu for the injured McAllister and then Cooke for Glover changed the match completely as the conditions helped Saints claw a way back into a decent match considering the wind was making an absolute mockery of players attempts at playing any kind of attractive football.

On sixty-one minutes a swirling corner by Cammy MacPherson was blown outwards and then inwards by the wind which was about as unpredictable as a Glaswegian on whisky, and a confused Rikki Lammie slashed his clearance straight at Andreu who drilled in a cross shot which Obika diverted home with his thigh area. Game on.

Boosted by this goal, Saints found new confidence and just over ten minutes later a Durmus shot was blown into a fine pass for Andreu, and the Frenchman showed great composure by pulling the ball back for Obika whose effort looped off a Livingston player and dipped into the net to level the match and send the Saints fan crazy, with twenty minutes still to go.

The last period of the match was a brutal slog in the howling wind, by which point Saints had a back three of Waters, McLoughlin and Flynn. With defences at stretching point almost continuously, even Prince Andrew would have broken sweat had he been playing, and the only surprise was that the match finished 3-3, a point we would all have taken at some point during a crazy match of football considering the defensive difficulties and circumstances of the match.

The following week, our final away match of the decade paired us with St Johnstone, a team we had comfortably beaten at Paisley a couple of months beforehand but despite their struggles had managed to gain parity with Saints in terms of points going into the match, making it another vital fixture.

Just short of 800 Saints supporters made the trip to Perth and were strangely packed into a reserved area in the main stand so full that parents couldn’t sit beside their kids as around 7000 seats lay empty around us, including a full stand behind the goals. Why not just open that instead, is it so hard?

With the news that both Paul McGinn and Sam Foley were back in the starting XI, Scott Glover dropped out as did the injured Kyle McAllister. Ryan Flynn continued at right back with Paul McGinn slotting in a centre half and MacPherson unlucky in being moved to right wing to accommodate Foley.

There is not really much say about this match in truth. The real Saints were probably the livelier team, creating the better chances but our decision making was extremely poor. During a frustrating first half we missed three opportunities to put Morias clear through on goal, with MacPherson twice and Obika deciding to go alone or pass too late to the little Jamaican who we have discovered can produce a very decent long throw.

After looking threatening particularly on the break for the first half hour, the players seemed to abandon all effort of playing football and decided to go route one continuously from any area of the park after this, ending any enjoyment the crowd may have taken from the afternoon. Perhaps the poor playing surface dictated this, but this tactic played into the home sides strength and a side repeatedly beaten by balls in behind their defence suddenly had to deal with an aerial threat which they coped with a lot easier.

The second half was about as exciting as a Rob MacLean commentary, with the closest either team coming a McLoughlin effort against the side netting from a deep Durmus free kick, and the match fizzled out tamely to a lame draw keeping the Paisley side ninth and stretching the lead over bottom club Hearts to four points.

Five days later on Boxing Day, Celtic were the visitors to St Mirren Park with the away side embroiled in a title race with their slightly more vulgar cousins from across the Weegie swamp which has allowed paranoia in the sectarian capital to go to levels only previously seen by alleged alien abductees out their tiny little minds on acid.

As is now common for these occasions, I was decanted from the Family to Main Stand to accommodate the travelling glory hunters where it soon became obvious in the lead up to kick off numerous away supporters were around us in the home end, not helped by the alleged actions of stewards who were advising Celtic supporters to “hide” their colours on entry to the stadium. Good to see the club ensuring our home supporters are safe at matches.

On the park, the team faced a difficult a task, something as hard as getting served in the 1877 club in fact, and despite starting the match quite well two mistakes were ruthlessly punished by Celtic who went in at the break 2-0 up. In the previous eight matches against the Old Firm since returning to the top division we have failed to score one single goal, but we gave it a right good go in the second half, squandering multiple opportunities before Cammy MacPherson curled in a deflected 30 yard free kick in the last minute to give a much more accurate reflection of how the match was, and a 2-1 defeat left a feeling of optimism as we had played well particularly during the second period.

The final match of the decade was arranged for three days later at home to Kilmarnock, who sacked manager Angelo Alessio a week or so earlier and had Alex Dyer in temporary charge for this game. During the previous match between the clubs this season, Killie had mugged Saints at Rugby Park with a late goal in a 1-0 victory but had offered practically nothing in attack, with their winner coming from a corner kick.

Before the match in the 1877 club the Celtic v Rangers match was aired, and a group of rather drunk Killie supporters burst into song at full time by singing “If you hate the f***ing old firm clap yer hands” before leaving the club and singing “Hullo….Hullo……” on the stairs out of the place. That’ll show them lads, pesky old firm and their songs!

On the pitch the Ayrshire side were unimpressive once more despite a sell-out 1600 travelling support (no additional tickets for Killie) and were outplayed for practically the entire 90 minutes by an extremely hungry and impressive Saints performance. Previously I had considered the 1-0 win at Hamilton earlier this month as the most sided one goal victory I had seen, but this eclipsed it considerably. 

Ilkay Durmus was the match winner, firing home a right footed shot from 20 yards after an excellent Andreu through ball, and how Saints never built on this is a mystery with the Killie goal leading a life more charmed than Prince Andrew’s vest. Magennis, Durmus and Morias all went inches from increasing the lead and the Killie keeper also had several outstanding saves with his acrobatic tip over from Andreu’s header the pick of these.

It was the intensity and tempo of Saints that was most impressive though, particularly as our back four was made up almost entirely of players playing out of position and had we made better decisions on multiple occasions when we overloaded Killie in the final third the outcome would probably have been more far more comfortable. However, the 1-0 victory ended the decade, which also started with a 1-0 win over Killie, and this win edged us six points clear of Hearts in bottom place as practically everyone else around us won also bar the Edinburgh side.

As the winter break kicks in we are four points behind Kilmarnock who occupy seventh position and six points behind Hibs and Livingston who are in the first two places in the top six, so we are currently equidistant from relegation and our first ever venture into the elite half of the league since the split was introduced twenty years ago. We all know too well our season can now go either way, with history suggesting another relegation fight admittedly.

With the impressive Sean McLoughlin already back at Hull City, Jim Goodwin needed to urgently find defenders as we quite simply can’t continue with so many players out of position in this area and expect not to get caught out eventually, so it is encouraging that two have already arrived within the first full week of the window. However, considering the issues the Saints manager has had to deal with since coming in late during the pre-season, the team is now beginning to look like a decent outfit with his signings looking better almost by the week.

Optimism is high again at the moment, but the clubs recent history in the top division is littered with second half of the season slumps, can Jim Goodwin therefore change this and steer the club to a comfortable end to the season?

Players of the Month for December:

Sean McLoughlin8.0
Paul McGinn7.4
Jonathan Obika7.3
Cammy McPherson7.3
Ryan Flynn7.3
Junior Morias7.3

Top League Ratings for the Season:

Sam Foley7.5
Sean McLoughlin7.4
Gary MacKenzie7.1
Vaclav Hladky7.1
Jonathan Obika7.0
Cammy McPherson7.0
Ryan Flynn7.0
Paul McGinn7.0
Kirk Broadfoot6.9
Kyle Magennis6.8

Top Overall Ratings for the season (all competitions)

Sam Foley7.5
Sean McLoughlin7.4
Vaclav Hladky7.1
Jonathan Obika7.0
Cammy McPherson6.9
Kirk Broadfoot6.9
Gary MacKenzie6.8
Paul McGinn6.8
Ryan Flynn6.7

Goalscorers (all competitions)

Jon Obika5
Danny Mullen3
Cammy MacPherson2
Ilkay Durmus2
Junior Morias2
Cody Cooke1
Kyle Magennis1
Oan Djorkaeff1
Sam Foley1
Sean McLoughlin1
Tony Andreu1

Assists (all competitions)

Tony Andreu5
Paul McGinn3
Ryan Flynn3
Danny Mullen1
Ethan Erahon1
Jon Obika1
Kirk Broadfoot1
Kyle Magennis1
Vaclav Hladky1

Man of the Match Awards  (all comps)

Sam Foley4
Vaclav Hladky4
Cammy MacPherson3
Jon Obika3
Sean McLoughlin3
Paul McGinn2
Ryan Flynn2
Ilkay Durmus1
Jack Baird1
Kirk Broadfoot1
Kyle Magennis1

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