2020/21 Season – Part Three

Before we learned our COVID appeal outcome on the 15th January, Saints had a league game against Motherwell in Paisley six days beforehand and faced a new manager in Scottish football with Graham Alexander now in charge of the Lanarkshire side following the resignation of Steven Robinson, who undoubtedly was taking Motherwell back to the lower leagues for the first time in almost 40 years.

The “new manager bounce” appeared to be working against Saints, as Motherwell who were thrashed by Hamilton the previous week, looked impressive in the first half, taking the lead through Devante Cole, despite huge suspicions of offside as a ‘Well player was standing on the line next to Alnwick.

Saints improved in the second half and gained a 1-1 draw when Jamie McGrath scored from the penalty spot again following an alleged leg sweep on Lee Erwin. It was questionable at best; however, it had evened things up after the officials had missed the offside at the ‘Well opener.

The new Motherwell boss then complained after the match about the decision to award Saints a penalty and the fact our bench were in breach of something you will just never see at a game of football, and that is the crime of claiming for throw ins and free kicks. Apparently, Jim Goodwin was also shouting according to Alexander who had arrived from the English seaside leagues without a jacket. This shouting is awful news, when did it start and how do we get rid of it?

Off the park, the COVID appeal loomed later in the following week, and the SPFL’s deplorable handling of the pandemic was further highlighted when it transpired 13 Celtic players were self-isolating after a couple of them picked up the virus in Dubai. The group included an injured and out for the season Christopher Julien, despite Celtic’s claim they were not in Dubai for a holiday but to work hard…..although Neil Lennon had said beforehand it would be good to get a break! Added to this was the Scottish Government stating they had advised cautiously on Celtic traveling abroad in November before the second lockdown had started the following month but had been told by the club it was a trip to Europe. There has been no action taken against Celtic by the SPFL in relation to this trip.

All of this gave an inevitability about the outcome as even the SFA couldn’t punish two clubs as Celtic were allowed to tour the globe without fear of reprisal, and sure enough Saints and Kilmarnock were both more or less cleared entirely at the appeal on the 15th January, with the board stating the punishment was disproportionate and the forfeited matches must now be played.

Good news, which had the added bonus of annoying Motherwell fans who believed they were somehow being denied six points as they had one match each against us and Kilmarnock, but the SPFL responded in their usual classless way by releasing a statement saying they disagreed with the outcome and rescheduled our two previously forfeited fixtures for February as they had no right of appeal against our own successful outcome.

This tight scheduling was strange as there was a free weekend in March, but this gave us 11 matches in just 34 days between the 24th of January and 28th February. In hindsight, we should just have booked a trip to Dubai to get one of those rescheduled.

Our first match after the appeal was played at McDiarmid Park against St Johnstone and the feelgood factor was non existent as we lost 1-0 in a forgettable game where we once again allowed Chris Kane to score against us, a player most of us wouldn’t even let be a spare man for our 5 a-side team. Frustrating isn’t the word.

Eight days later we travelled to Hampden Park to take on Livingston in the highly anticipated semi final of the League Cup. Having knocked out Aberdeen and Rangers, this was simply a massive opportunity to win the competition as Celtic had been eliminated in an earlier round by Ross County, and St Johnstone waiting in the final having thumped Hibs in the first semi the previous day.

Livingston had been in excellent form leading up to it, with David Martindale hailed as a mythical management God by seemingly everyone in the media, like a combination between Sir Alex Ferguson and Pablo Escobar with the voice of Shellsuit Bob.

It wasn’t a great day to be honest. Saints were marginally the better side, but that doesn’t say much when Livingston scored early and then strangled the life out the game to win 1-0, it was job done by the minnows and we’d all have accepted the same. We might have had a penalty in the first half when Joe Shaughnessy was kicked, but his delayed fall hinted that there wasn’t enough contact for him to naturally go down. That said, there is little doubt it would have been awarded if VAR was used and in the same way as England, but that’s not something we should want to repeat, so in my opinion it was not a foul or penalty.

The closest we came to equalising was a Conor McCarthy header which beat the keeper but was headed off the line at the start of the second half. Jon Obika also had a couple of late chances and Kyle McAllister wasted a fabulous opportunity when he decided to pass instead of shoot, which summed our day up as Connolly tried the same in the first half when we had a three on two break.

Suddenly, the good feeling of December seemed a distant memory already, but in true St Mirren style the reaction to the defeat by the players was pretty special. A few days later Saints made the trip to Tannadice for the second of these 11 matches in 34 days, and it turned out to be one for the record books in a good way.

The team started well, dominating the early stages against a United side who had been very poor against us in the previous match, but I don’t think anyone would have predicted the gap between the sides at full time as Saints humiliated the hosts by recording a 5-1 victory that did not flatter us one bit.

Ryan Flynn was instrumental in this win, starting his first match in a year since injury and his all action performance was a reminder of what we had missed for practically the entire season. It was Shaughnessy however who opened the scoring with a fine header, followed by two Jamie McGrath penalties on the stroke of half time making us all wonder why refs were suddenly pointing to the spot so often in our favour after decades of frustration. Maybe it’s our fans not slating the ref within ear shot!

United pulled one back after the break but goals from Connolly and the increasingly impressive Kristian Dennis completed the 5-1 hammering, the first time Saints had scored five goals away from home in the top flight since March 1983 when we beat Dundee 5-2, and our biggest winning margin in the Premier Division era away from Paisley since 27th April 1985 when a 4-0 win was recorded at Easter Road.

This was a good sign, as this period when these sizeable away victories were last tasted was also when we could go to Parkhead and win, and it was the Glasgow tourists who were up next at their COVID centre in the East of Glasgow. Surprisingly, Jim Goodwin changed the team around from Tannadice, but the Saints manager got everything absolutely spot on as our wing back system was to prove too much for a floundering Celtic.

It was Dennis who scored the opener, finishing off a brilliant move involving Alnwick, Fraser, MacPherson, McAllister and Connolly with a sweet left foot volley past Bain in Celtic’s goal. Saints were in control, but Edouard equalised for the home side 15 minutes later to cast a few doubts in most of our minds, but we needn’t have worried as Kyle McAllister carved out a chance for Durmus minutes later with a teasing curling pass that confused Shane Duffy so much he forgot he was supposed to be a footballer and looked as though he was going off the park for a sausage roll. Undeterred by this utter chaos caused by Duffy, the Turk pulled the ball out of the air with his left foot before smashing it past Bain to give Saints the lead once more.

After this, it was pretty straightforward to be honest. Celtic just didn’t look like scoring again as Saints coasted to their first victory at Parkhead since 1990. Apart from one save by Alnwick deep into injury time from the head of sausage roll Shaun, it was easy for Saints and this victory pushed the side into the top six where we would stay for the next 10 matches. The almost perennial threat of relegation for us was this time reserved for Motherwell and Kilmarnock who were suffering from Tommy Craig-esque seasons at this point, and we loved it.

February would begin as the transfer window shut, with only Junior Morias and Nathan Sheron leaving the club. It is doubtful either will ever appear in a Greatest XI Selection by any supporter, with Sheron in particular massively out his depth and more in line with an Alan Stubbs signing. However, Goodwin’s recruitment has been excellent in general and getting one or two wrong is just part of football.

February also gave Saints a fixture list heavily weighted towards home matches, with seven of our eight fixtures in the calendar month scheduled for Paisley. If you flick through the record books, you will see pile up of games like this scattered throughout our history, but this was long before undersoil heating, groundsmen and technology to help maintain parks, so this was quite unique in the modern game.

Before we played these matches, it didn’t actually look like an advantage though having all these home matches, as empty stadiums have had an impact on our home form like many clubs. In fact, you can tell which clubs have a support that can positively influence matches as they have struggled since the pandemic in home matches, and we undoubtedly fall into that category.

In the first of those matches against Hibs, we suffered a 2-1 defeat, with the turning point of an even game the dismissal of Jan Alnwick in the 35th minute for bringing down Martin Boyle, apparently denying a goal scoring opportunity. In my opinion, this decision was incorrect as the incident was thirty yards from goal and McCarthy was clearly covering on the side Boyle was fouled. To add to this, Jamie Murphy flung himself to the ground when touched on the arm to win the decisive penalty and allow Jack Ross to leave Paisley once more with maximum points for the third time in three matches since becoming Hibernian manager.

Managerless Kilmarnock were next in Paisley four days later, with former Saints assistant manager James Fowler and current director of football at Rugby Park, in temporary charge. It must have felt like the good old days for James, as he sat in a dug out at St Mirren Park and watched the home side completely dominate in an easy 2-0 win, with McAllister and Obika on target and Durmus in great form.

Two matches down in February, one win and one defeat. Not a bad start, with Celtic next to make the trip to Paisley only 11 days since our win at Parkhead. We didn’t play particularly well on this occasion however, but with ten minutes remaining the match was very much in the balance with the away side leading only 1-0. By full time it was 4-0 to Celtic however after an outrageous penalty decision when Taylor of Celtic dived when running into the penalty area, and the players lost complete focus in the aftermath of this allowing the COVID tourists to score two quick goals.

The team then went on a five match unbeaten run, starting with a goalless draw at Pittodrie as McInnesball was drawing to it’s natural conclusion in Aberdeen with the Dons failing to score in the six straight matches. Within a month McInnes was looking for a new job as they had scored only one goal in ten games, and all that with a superstar like Lewis Ferguson playing for them. This was a decent point all the same on an atrocious day in the North East of Scotland with the wind making it virtually impossible to play football, although it is hard to tell if that made a difference to Aberdeen sometimes, but this was the first draw in a series of four that would ultimately cost Saints a crack at European football next season, unless the Scottish Cup can be delivered back to Paisley for the first time in 34 years.

Hamilton Accies then travelled to Paisley having just hammered Motherwell once again (it’s a recurring theme) in the first of our “forfeited” matches, and the Lanarkshire side left Greenhill Road with a 1-1 draw after scoring with their only shot on target all match, a deflected volley that Alnwick was comfortably saving before the diversion. This was more or less repeated a few days later against Livingston as the same score was recorded after the visitors scored when a clearing Tait header bounced off McCarthy and rolled into the net, meaning Saints relied on a thunderbolt left shot from Cammy MacPherson to earn a point despite being comfortably the better side.

These two matches more or less summed us up perfectly at home during the pandemic. Undoubtedly the better side in both games, we took only two points from them and this failure to win just one of them would come back to bite us before the split. Four days later we drew 0-0 with a pumped-up Motherwell after the Steelmen had suffered two hammerings in their previous matches at home against Hamilton and St Johnstone by an aggregate score of 7-1.

Since we had last played the ‘Well, their manager Graham Alexander had been sent to the stands on a couple of occasions for shouting at the match officials, something of course he claimed was outrageous behaviour only weeks beforehand. By now Alexander had found his missing jacket but was sent to the stands once again late in the match for screaming at the fourth official. Despite being a Scotland international, Alexander is of course new to the Scottish game having never worked here before and is learning the hard way that if he is going to complain almost constantly about practically everything after the match, then he is going to look very foolish on a regular basis if he then is guilty of what he says doesn’t like, as has been the case a number of times already in his short term in Lanarkshire.

After the game the Motherwell manager then complained about a penalty Motherwell never got, when Tony Watt was skimmed by the trailing lace of Marcus Fraser’s boot; Alexander claiming that Watt had to fall over to get a penalty but because he was “honest” then he never got what was deserved. Around five minutes before this incident, Watt collapsed to the floor in front of the main TV camera actually screaming as though he had been shot, when Durmus attempted to hook the ball up the line. Replays showed no contact was made, but the Saints winger was booked. Watt and honesty go together as easily as Morton and top flight football.

The fifth fixture in this run of five unbeaten matches finally yielded a win in a frantic game against Ross County which we won 1-0. Saints were in complete control in the first half, with County keeper Ross Laidlaw pulling off an incredible save to deny Conor McCarthy, however John Hughes made several changes at half time and it was the Highlanders who had the best of the second half with Alnwick going one better than Laidlaw and making an astonishing stop to turn a thumping header from a couple of yards onto the underside of the bar.

It was Saints though who would grab the three points when the returning Collin Quaner was bundled over in the box late in the match. Jamie McGrath stepped up and sent Laidlaw the wrong way with his usual immaculate job from the spot. Top six was now within touching distance, with just a win needed or St Johnstone dropping any points in the last two matches before the split to confirm.

In the penultimate match, Saints had the task of going to Ibrox to face Rangers who were trying to create their own bit of history by winning a first league title in only their ninth year of existence. It was a fairy-tale story, having only ran up operating losses of around £100 million in those short nine years. They’d truly done it the hard way.

However, although they couldn’t win the league that day, bizarrely thousands of their fans had descended on the ground and ignored all social distancing rules and guidelines. Frightening footage of men soiling themselves, defecated trousers, masturbation and drinking their own urine was posted on social media as the original angry mob turned into a genuinely dangerous COVID breeding gang, and Rangers snatched the COVID crown for stupidity off their city rivals.

This continued all weekend as Celtic handed the title to them the following day, with the actions of the club and their support heavily criticised by politicians from all sides, due to the behaviour of their supporters putting at risk the entire population, and the lack of action from the club in taking responsibly for it, considered equally as liable. No action has been taken against the Ibrox club however for this, despite clear video footage of car sharing (which St Mirren were found guilty of) and their players and management encouraging the angry mob.

On the park, Saints lost 3-0 with very little to take from the match other than our players and staff getting out of Pandemic Park safely. In Perth meanwhile, Jack Ross could finally actually do something positive for us by avoiding defeat against St Johnstone, but in true JR style his side were very poor and the fakes won 1-0, taking the final top six place to the very last game, with the farmers at home to Ross County and Saints having to beat Hamilton Accies at the half stadium in Lanarkshire to guarantee that top six, should the Perth side win also.

The fact it had went this far was concerning. In those eight matches in February we’d taken only ten points, with two wins and four draws. Even taking into consideration our poor home form this was a rather scant return for a run of fixtures that included seven matches at the SMISA. That nagging feeling that we would live to regret not finishing it off would be confirmed by 5pm on the Saturday.

I must say however, I’ve always felt the ‘top six’ achievement is something of a manufactured feat, like the ‘top 4’ nonsense in England that Arsene Wenger tried to convince everyone was a trophy. It would be a slight “money spinner” if fans were allowed in, but they aren’t. The only annoying thing is failing to secure the spot shuts the door to Europe as fifth place may well get that this season, but we still have the Scottish Cup for that.

Hamilton away wasn’t exactly a frightening prospect either. Accies are a poor side and in recent years we have started to get rid of the “bogey team” tag often attached to them against us, with a seven-match unbeaten run in our favour going into the fixture. The match was actually comfortable for Saints, and we were again easily the superior team on the day, but once more failed to take our chances and that has been our Achilles heel this season without any doubt. The injury to Eamonn Brophy in January that ruled him out for the season, and issues for Quaner and Dennis undoubtedly not helping us.

We took the lead through a now very familiar route, when Jamie McGrath coolly slotted in his seventh penalty of the season after Durmus had been hacked down by the thoroughly unlikable Brian Easton. After this, we had numerous chances to kill the game completely, with Jon Obika particularly wasteful in front of goal when he missed two one on ones with the Hamilton keeper.

On the other hand, Accies offered nothing going forward and with St Johnstone goalless against Ross County, we had a double lock security on that final top six place. That would all change in the last five minutes however when news came through that St Johnstone had scored after eighty-six minutes to take the lead at McDiarmid Park. We now knew if Hamilton scored in the remaining couple of minutes, we were finishing seventh.

Almost immediately, Accies were awarded a free kick around thirty-five yards out near the touchline, a decision which enraged Jim Goodwin at the time and continued to do so in the days after. I missed the challenge as my stream froze, and I have no intention of watching it now, but the honest truth is we should have defended the free kick much better than we did. There was nothing fancy going on, it was lumped to the back post and an Accies jobber headed it past Alnwick in what was their only goal attempt in the entire match, and something that happens to us far too often to be unlucky.

By the time I got my stream back, the ball was floating in the air towards the unmarked Hamilton player on the far side, and a flash scores notification pinged on my phone at the same time advising there was a goal at our match, so I was already shaking my head as the ball rippled in the net. It was all far too inevitable, and we’d flung away our best chance of European football in thirty years. Goodwin blamed the referee, but the fault lies squarely with us. Firstly, our failure to take advantage of the forfeited matches being played in February, and then not defending a routine set piece late in a match.

It’s not the end of the world, however. As I said earlier, ‘top 6’ is a fabricated achievement but without it the league route to Europe is shut. St Johnstone fans won’t be telling their grandchildren about the time they made it to the top 6 by virtue of two goals over St Mirren. Although in saying that, a club with their limited achievements might just count it as a big deal.

We do however have the Scottish Cup left, and by coincidence we have Hamilton away in the third round in a few days time from when I write this. I’ll be much angrier if we don’t progress from that than I was after the 1-1 draw in the league. Additionally, we might have the opportunity to relegate a club. Hamilton would be magnificent and return their plastic pitch and two stands back to the seaside leagues. If not Accies, we have Kilmarnock on the penultimate day and although I have nothing against Killie, we owe big Broadfoot…………….