2020/21 Season – Part One

It has been close to six long months since I last wrote about Saints, and during that period a lot has changed at the club, as well as in Scottish football, as the game went in true tabloid style from lockdown to meltdown.

Anyone could write for hours about what has happened since Jon Obika hammered the final nail in Hearts Premiership status back in March, but it ended (despite much threatening and posturing from Ann Budge) in relegation for the Tynecastle side ultimately for being the worst side in the league over thirty matches.

By the time this protracted legal circus finished however, Saints were only days away from the start of the Premiership season at home to Livingston so I guess we owe Hearts a degree of gratitude for keeping us thoroughly entertained throughout a long period without football and most of us stuck in the house.

By this point, Saints players and staff had returned from furlough, season ticket sales had been steady and went through the 3,000 mark, and in terms of the squad, Jim Goodwin had freed several players from the previous season including captain Stephen McGinn who eventually moved to Hibs, Danny Mullen who joined up with Alex Jakubiak at Dundee, Gary MacKenzie who signed for Peterhead, and Cody Cooke who returned to England when he joined Weymouth of the English national league.

Vaclav Hladky as expected left the club, and despite being linked with multiple moves to bigger things, inexplicably signed for Salford City, who despite my belief that they were a fictional club from a TV show who would draw big rivals Holby City in the FA Cup, are actually a professional League 2 club in England owned by a gang of ex Man Utd jobbers from the 1990’s.

However, Saints acted quickly on the goalkeeper front and signed Jak Alnwick from Rangers on a two year deal and in burst of impressive defensive signings also secured Richard Tait from Motherwell, Joe Shaughnessy from some English backwater, but previously of Aberdeen and St Johnstone, and finally Marcus Fraser of Ross County.

Midfield, where Saints were already strong, was ‘strengthened’ by the loan signings of Nathan Sheron from Fleetwood Town and Isak Thorvaldsson of Norwich City, as well as the returning Ethan Erhahon after his loan spell at Barnsley. Thankfully, Goodwin stated the youngster will be used in midfield from now on after looking about as out of place as Prince Edward at a sauna when utilised at left back in the past. Also, back from a loan spell was Jack Baird, who returned from a starring role at Morton to provide back up in central defence.

This left attack as the most urgent area needing strengthened as it was frankly weaker than an Ann Budge reconstruction plan, but Saints went into the opening fixture at home to Livingston with Jon Obika as the only recognised out and out ‘number nine’ at the club, backed up by Junior Morias, who was yet to convince Goodwin or anyone else that he deserves a place in the starting XI in any role and took his usual place on the bench.

When the leagues stopped last season, we had these two attacking players at the club plus Mullen, Cooke, Chabbi and Jakubiak, so at this point of the campaign we were four striking options short from the previous season and looking thinner up top than Willie Collum after a trip to his local Turkish barbers.

The match against Livingston was the first played by the club behind closed doors, and season ticket holders were able to watch it on St Mirren TV hosted by Ali De Foy with guest appearances from former players. The standard of presentation was excellent, and despite a few teething problems as anyone would expect, we were all treated to an opening day victory as Richard Tait met Jamie McGrath’s superb cross to head a brilliant winning goal in the first half.

Sounds straight forward, but this was far from the case. Saints were put under pressure for long spells, relying on a proper defensive masterclass from the players, in particular the centre half pairing of Shaughnessy and McCarthy, who headed and blocked everything Livingston could throw at them during a scrappy ninety minutes where Saints looked short of attacking ideas, yet created the best chances of the match outside the goal, with Morias wasting the pick of them when he tried to hammer a volley home instead of just placing it into the open goal, his shot rebounding from the post with more force than Josh Heaton can kick the ball.

All in all, it was great to be back, well kind of, as watching Saints from home is not nearly half as good as the real thing, but if this option was offered in April when it looked like COVID could see the game halted until 2021 then we would all have accepted it gladly.

With that in mind, it was therefore infuriating to discover that EIGHT Aberdeen players had broken the rules put in place by the Scottish Government/SFA/SPFL to allow football to resume on August 1st as scheduled, when they went to a pub in the city after their opening day defeat to Rangers. Maybe they thought they wouldn’t get noticed, but with Johnny Hayes in attendance, a man whose nose is so red that helicopters follow him when he jogs at night, then it really was foolish. Nicola Sturgeon strongly condemned the players, and Aberdeen’s next two fixtures postponed, with surprisingly no punishment given.

Saints were at Ibrox a few days later, with still no additional forwards in place, and the 3-0 defeat that followed was as straightforward as possible for the Glaswegians, boosted by having supporters Andrew Dallas and Douglas Ross in the stadium working as match officials and in the biggest irony in football history, Dallas gave Saints a free kick on the edge of the box after Jamie McGrath had been fouled inside, the opposite of his disgraceful performance 18 months ago when he awarded Rangers two penalties for fouls outside the box against Saints, and another two just for good measure that ridiculous afternoon.

What was really disappointing however was the manner of the performance. The game was clearly written off by Goodwin, and we made no attempt to take anything from it. In fact, so isolated was Jon Obika up front he was treated for exposure at half time. We’ve been here before under Goodwin, and Obika’s confidence will undoubtedly take a hammering should we continue to play in this manner, however the concession without trying to take anything against the old firm away from home is extremely disappointing.

Nobody can convince me that Ryan Jack and Scott Arfield are much better players than Foley and Flynn for example, and we should be at least competing against them. If they beat us, fair enough, but 90 minutes of defending and a 3-0 defeat proves nothing. Especially when Morellos scores twice, the most out of shape person on a football park in Scotland since wee Robbo made the half time draw at Tynecastle last season.

To compound our situation, Saints faced Celtic next, but in more stupidity from footballers, the Parkhead squad player Boli Bolingoli had decided to secretly travel to Spain the previous week for a fly pump and told nobody, meaning our game was postponed, with again no punishment for the guilty team. Little was said by the media about this as you’d expect as it involves one of their favourite two clubs, but I hoped we would send out a strong statement stating this was unacceptable, however we were very soft in our approach, perhaps worried one of our own players does something equally as stupid. I’m sure the media will have plenty to say should that happen…………..

Next up for Saints therefore was Hamilton Accies away, and during a fine first half performance Jon Obika scored the decisive goal from close range, leaving Saints with six points after three matches and all looked good. The confidence and high spirits didn’t last however, despite Goodwin capturing English striker Kristian Dennis between this and the following match for an undisclosed fee from Notts County, finally giving additional striking options to the manager.

Our next game was against Ross County at home, and a chance for Saints to move into Tony Fitzpatrick territory and the top three of the Premiership. Goodwin’s side looked on course to do this, after Obika once more found the net in the first half following good play from McAllister and some slack County defending, with Saints looking very comfortable as the match drifted towards the final quarter. Enter Willie Collum however, like an unwanted bead of sweat of Prince Andrew’s forehead.

The match official on this occasion was Mike Roncone, a new name to me with very little experience at this level, and Collum acting as fourth official, or as he calls it the “bench prefect”. Three quarters of the way through the match and with County giving little indication they could breach the Saints defence; Joe Shaughnessy contested a bouncing ball with former Saints forward Ross Stewart. On first look, it appeared high and a free kick to County. The actual referee positioned around only six yards away, waved played on, and Richard Tait swept the ball out wide to Obika who had a clear run down the right-hand side.

Just as the big striker got into his stride, the referee blew his whistle more than ten seconds after the tackle from Shaughnessy in what appeared at first to be due to Stewart requiring treatment. It was infuriating as clearly Romcom (pun intended) and his assistant didn’t even think it was a foul. Remarkably however, Romcom then flashed a red card at the Saints defender, on the instruction of Collum who had a blindside view of the challenge using his wee gimpy X-Ray spectacles from about 25 yards away.

Whether the tackle merited a red card or not is kind of irrelevant. There is no scope within the rules of Scottish football for the fourth official to overrule the match officials, and the incident was treated almost like a VAR one, which of course we don’t have either. Within a few minutes, County equalised with an incredibly fortunate deflected goal, and the match finished 1-1. Everything from this moment has been downhill for Saints.

The following week, Saints travelled to Perth where we faced an off form and frankly poor St Johnstone side with midfielder Isaak Thorvaldsson no longer a Saints player following the termination of his loan deal. The young Icelander had played twice for the club totalling a whopping 19 minutes on the park and is the answer to the future quiz question “Who played twice for St Miren but nobody seen him play?”

On this occasion at Perth, Goodwin changed the tactics to a 5-4-1 formation to accommodate the loss of Shaughnessy and dropped Foley to centre back but we had no attempts at goal throughout a torturous 90 minutes, where Stevie May scored the only goal of the match for the fakes to rub in the embarrassment of a very disappointing afternoon.

Making his Saints debut that afternoon was Dylan Connolly, a powerful 25-year-old Irish winger, and he was joined a few days later by striker Lee Erwin from Ross County as Goodwin further strengthened the squad.

These two arrivals however spelled the end of Jack Baird’s time at Paisley, and Saints longest serving player was freed after six years as a first team player and 165 appearances. The centre back almost immediately joined Ayr United, disappointing Morton fans after the previously on-loan defender had been named their player of the century and inducted into their hall of fame beside Catman and Alan McGraw.

The drama was however yet to start. A couple of days before our next match scheduled to be played in Paisley against Hibernian and their entourage of former St Mirren employees, it was announced by the club that Jak Alnwick and Dean Lyness had tested positive for COVID-19 and youth keeper Peter Urminsky had been told to self-isolate despite testing negative, leaving Saints with no available goalkeepers less than 48 hours before the match.

Understandably, with goalkeeper being the only truly specialist position in football, Saints asked for a postponement of the fixture, however the SPFL were having none of that and told us to put an outfield player in goals if we can’t secure a very quick short term loan. Even more than a month on this still seems like a preposterous decision from the SPFL, especially as we had followed all procedures and only a few weeks before this Celtic and Aberdeen had matches postponed after breaking the rules put in place, and also threatening the possibility of football continuing this season in Scotland.

Saints had little option than to reach out to the lower leagues who had not started playing yet, and found an unlikely ally in the shape of Edinburgh minnows Heart of Midlothian who were probably desperate to get a wage off their outgoings even for a short period, and Bobby Zlamal joined Saints on a one week loan deal which would cover three matches.

Jack Ross, always the face of integrity (if integrity was a corn snake) suggested this scenario faced by Saints was fair enough, and Zlamal took centre stage without even training with the first team as the home side welcomed an in-form Hibernian to Paisley and unsurprisingly lost 3-0 thanks to a couple of Zlamal mistakes and a very fortunate second goal where the ball hit Nisbet before eluding the Polish keeper.

Willie Collum was back in the spotlight however, this time as referee when he missed Hibs centre back Ryan Porteous almost catch the ball in the penalty area with the score still at 2-0. Replays would show that the referee had a direct view of the incident from no more than 10 yards away, yet somehow missed Porteous fluff his header and the ball ricochet off both hands which were in the middle of his chest.

Even before the rule change to punish handball for arms in an “unnatural” position this would be a penalty in the majority of cases, but add in the law change and it is probably accurate to say it would be awarded 999 times out of 1000. We obviously had to be the one exception, and with Collum missing this but somehow seeing Shaugnessy kick someone from 25 yards away as he was on the touchline through various players, then it is fair to say once more that we have not had our fair share of luck.

It was a harsh score line based on the overall play, but the guardian of fairness Ross insisted our goalkeeping situation had nothing to do with either the score line or outcome so I was happy with that as he always talks the truth, like that time in May 2018 when he stood up in the Bankhouse and stated his “job wasn’t finished” at St Mirren just as his agent planned a fly whistle-stop tour of England to apply for any job going, and Jacko was in Sunderland quicker than Alan Stubbs checks the V9 academy website for sub-standard English footballers.

This match however was the third in a row where Cammy MacPherson had strangely found himself benched in favour of Nathan Sheron, a player signed from Fleetwood Town reserves, and looks quite frankly every inch a Fleetwood Town reserve player. Even more surprising was the return to first team action for Ethan Erhahon, deployed in a central midfield role and easily Saints most impressive player on the day.

The pronunciation of his name however by Saints TV was perhaps the biggest talking point of the day, with the seemingly silent first H of his surname replaced with a CAPITAL H giving a rather strange sounding Er-HA-hon sound which was persevered with for several matches by the poor commentator as social media went ballistic over the matter!

A few days after this, Saints faced Celtic in Paisley with this seriously weakened goalkeeper situation, in a match rearranged following a Celtic player breaking every possible isolation process protocol, and in the time between the original fixture and now Neil Lennon had added several players to his squad. It seemed a ludicrous situation, but we had no other option than to get on with it, and within two minutes of the match starting Lee Erwin had scored the opener for Saints to register his first goal for the club, the striker starting the game following injury to Kristian Dennis will keep him out for a few months.

In 14 matches against the Old Firm since winning promotion back to the Premiership, this was only our second goal against either scabby arsehole cheek, a truly depressing statistic, but instead of going for a clearly wobbly Celtic, we sat back and invited pressure allowing one of those new signings at Parkhead, Shane Duffy to equalise, and then human-penguin hybrid Wee Jamesy Forrest bulleted a header past Zlamal to win the match for the visitors. That’s right, 5ft 3 inch Forrest.

The Polish keeper then saved the mandatory Celtic penalty in the second half, and at the other end Erwin carved out a great chance to equalise but fired just over as the game finished 2-1, however the performance was a slight improvement on the past few matches despite a third defeat on the trot.

Three days later, Saints travelled to Dundee where newly promoted United were the hosts, now managed by the finely named Michael Mellon, or Micky “Mind yer shape” Mellon as he is more commonly known after bellowing this out around eight thousand times during the match.

With former Saints heavyweight Lawrence Shankland now back fit, this gave the visitors a different perspective, but in general they looked like a newly promoted side and were quite poor. So, it doesn’t say much about us that we were beaten.

For the first half hour Saints were in control, creating all the best chances, not that the Dundee United commentary team acknowledge this with their 1983 specs on, but it was Shankland who struck first with a brilliant acrobatic volley beyond Bobby Zee following a poor clearance from a corner kick inexplicably left the Scotland striker unmarked at the edge of the box.

This goal speaks volumes of the turnaround in Shankland, and he must be applauded for it. If the striker had tried that volley during his second spell at Saints, the aftershock from his landing would have been so severe the tidal wave that would have inevitably ripped up the Cart would have wiped out Gockston and possibly even the town centre.

This piece of brilliance meant Saints trailed 1-0 at half time but still very much in the game, however the beginning of the second period at Tannadice acted as a perfect metaphor for our season thus far as we were slow, unmotivated, poor in possession and generally rubbish allowing United to score a second and would have had at least one other if it wasn’t for Zlamal. To top it off, Richard Tait was deservedly sent for a wild lunge at Logan Chalmers in the hour mark, although no worse than Calum Butcher’s tackle in the first half on Ethan Erahahon, but we expect this now, especially from an old foe like Colin Steven.

Dylan Connolly pulled one back shortly after and Saints were much better for the next half hour, with Durmus missing the key chance with a weak header at the back post summing up his season to date. Another defeat, and from the clutches of Top 4 only a few weeks ago we were suddenly five matches without a win and looking firmly at the pack behind us. Things wouldn’t improve quickly.

The 26th September gave Saints the perfect opportunity to halt this decline, with Kilmarnock visiting Paisley, a team blown away at St Mirren Park only in December by the most comprehensive 1-0 win you are ever likely to witness. Additionally, in goals for Killie was Danny Rogers, an Alan Stubbs signing for Saints and a player who was so bad for us when on loan Oran Kearney must have considered playing Jimmy Nichol in goals after he took over from the whinging Scouser. “If we shoot on target we score” should have been the message.

At left back, Calum Watters was now a regular in the Ayrshire defence, a no better than average player who has palpitations at the very thought of playing against an aggressive quick winger as we discovered last season when he faced, well almost everyone to be honest. Dylan Connolly however seemed ideal to exploit this weakness.

Jim Goodwin had other ideas however, and the serious Kilmarnock defensive deficiencies evident to seemingly everyone apart from our manager resulted in Connolly being benched again, despite being our best winger on form so far this season. Junior Morias, a striker, was played out wide once again and Goodwin also opted for one up front at home.

The match ended 1-0 to Kilmarnock, with Connolly introduced after 60 minutes but played on the left giving Watters a free afternoon. Rogers was completely untested during the 90 minutes, the third time already this season we had failed to get a shot on target during a match. Never mind everyone thought, Magennis and Flynn were almost ready to play now……….

With the transfer window closing before the next match, scheduled away at Aberdeen on the Friday night to allow Scottish players a break before the play off match against Israel, or in Saints case an extended chance for more players to catch COVID at the Scottish football outbreak centre in Ralston.

Nobody expected players to leave the club before the window shut, expecially Jim Goodwin, therefore it was surprising that the club made a statement that two bids for captain Kyle Magennis from Jack Ross at Hibernian had been rejected.

It was a strange thing to happen. I can’t recall many clubs doing this, unless of course they were hoping for a bidding war. Turns out it was only Hibs bidding for Magennis, and despite Goodwin stating the midfielder was going nowhere, the transfer was completed for a “undisclosed” fee believed to be anything between £75k and £250k depending on the source. It will be towards the smaller side of the scale in my opinion.

This transfer however united the Saints supporters and Goodwin again after a rocky period, and the overwhelming feeling was that the board had made a big mistake in selling such an important player with the team toiling like Alan Wardrop on twitter trying to make friends. Then to confound everything, the board made a crass statement blaming Magennis for the sale without a word of thanks for a young man who had been instrumental in two of the most incredible relegation escapes in Scottish football history and had been at the club since he was six years old.  

What a way to treat the captain of the club, but the statement was nonsensical as Magennis of course has many friends and family members who are Saints fans and they quickly dismissed the statement stating Kyle had demanded a transfer as utter rubbish, as well as confirming the Saints captain had no idea Hibs were interested until the board released the first statement advising we had knocked back two bids for him. Why would the board make it public knowledge there was serious interest in one of our players?

My own suspicion is they wanted to sell him, which is fine as they are in charge of balancing the books, but hanging the club captain out to dry is not a good look especially when so many people could easily dismiss the notion that Magennis wanted to leave. Whoever wrote that statement fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between the support and players, and it should never have been sanctioned. Were we not advised Kibble were there to provide top class communication? This was top class in the same way Josh Heaton was a professional footballer. Miles off the expected standard.

Saints then went to Aberdeen under a cloud, but boosted by the signings of centre half Daniel Finlayson from Rangers and left back Brandon Mason from Coventry City, who was reputedly out injured for 2 months as reported by his own club but bizarrely denied by Jim Goodwin as “internet rumours”. Don’t know about you, but I don’t class quotes from a manager as rumour. Anyway, both players were unavailable and yet to appear for the club.

Saints were improved at Aberdeen without a doubt, and at least had some spark and tempo to our game. The Dons were as expected under Derek McInnes; dull and uninspired, therefore it was no real surprise when Saints took the lead early in the second half. The big shock though was the scorer and the manner of the goal, after Ethan Erhahon smacked a quite sensational left foot shot high into the top corner from thirty yards.

The youngster has been in great form since returning to the side, and hopefully we never see young Ethan at left back again before his inevitable move to Hibs in 2022, as he is doing remarkably well in central midfield. That evening ended in typical St Mirren farce however, as the players ran out of steam towards the end of the 90 minutes, Jim Goodwin looked to his bench with only three outfield options from a possible nine including a 17 year old kid and decided he would keep the starting XI on the pitch.

Aberdeen made four changes, and it showed with two late goals, one from Marley Watkins and the other in stoppage time from Lewis Ferguson who had barely been seen all match. It was incredibly frustrating, but also so typical of us.

The performance in general was undoubtedly was an improvement on the previous weeks, but we should have won the match and I wouldn’t go as far as saying this improvement constituted a “good performance” either. We are still a bit off that.

The league cup then provided a break from Premiership action, and despite struggling against Partick Thistle we eventually ran out 4-1 winners before mysteriously going to Dumfries and playing a 5-4-1 formation and clawing back a 2-0 deficit to earn a 2-2 draw before winning on penalties. It was hardly inspiring stuff again from Saints and it is more than concerning.

Of course, things are strange at the moment. Players aren’t used to performing without a crowd, and this has taken away the sense of occasion football brings, perhaps accounting for the lack of tempo in our play. However, everyone else seems to be coping better than us and have the same circumstances so we can not use it as an excuse.

The goalkeeping situation remains an extremely sore point. Any momentum we had seems to have disappeared quicker than a fudge donut in the Inverness managers office since then, and we remain the only team forced to play a match with more than two players missing through COVID, never mind them all being in one position.

At the time of writing this, our match against Motherwell was cancelled 48 hours beforehand, with the perception on social media and radio that we are somehow “at it” because several of our players tested positive again for COVID leaving us with just eight outfield players.

Why we would be “at it” remains a complete puzzle as we were playing a Motherwell side that haven’t managed to beat us in the three matches played this year between the clubs, and the likelihood is we will now need to play Hamilton with several youth players in the team.

These issues aside, in my opinion Jim Goodwin needs to find his best team and shape and stick with it. This should not include Junior Morias on the wing, or Nathan Sheron in the team who has had more chances than Maurice Ross has braincells, and the on-loan midfielder simply brings nothing to the side. I only hope he came with his own track and trace app, as he has been missing since August. Boom boom.

We also need to be much more of a threat in attack. Our best football under Goodwin has been with two up front, so why he insists with just one forward is another mystery to me, and the huge amounts of goodwill the manager rightly has with the support is steadily evaporating as the team struggles. However, the good news is several players have yet to find their form yet from last season, with Sam Foley and Ilkay Durmus in particular nowhere near as effective. A fully functional Foley would be a massive influence again of the team.

The two deadline signings may also bring stability to the defence which started off brilliantly, but the backline has been sucked into this lethargic looking squabble on the park currently where no-one really seems sure of their role, and sticking with a formation will help this. And winning., which would be nice.

Ryan Flynn of course is back in training. The one thing the midfielder possesses which we are badly missing is energy and drive, and hopefully with his return we will see an improvement in the form of the team over the coming months, but sadly fans will not be back in the stadium any time soon by the looks of it, therefore the players need to rediscover this winning habit on their own.

If only we could watch this struggle up close in a stadium!