2020/21 Season – Part Two

Following the League Cup wins over Partick Thistle and Queen of the South in October, with the latter being on penalties after a poor performance, Saints were now into November and hadn’t played a league match for almost five weeks because of the well publicised double postponement of the Motherwell and Hamilton matches at St Mirren Park in the middle of the previous month. The SPFL were at this point defiantly not rescheduling matches until they had decided what action would be taken against both Saints and Kilmarnock who had similar COVID issues, and both clubs faced a hearing with the League management committee, consisting of several older moustached men with no real grasp on reality, as has been the case since the 1890’s.

With availability for fixtures supposedly at a premium, it was a major surprise therefore to see the date for this hearing set as the 3rd December, almost seven weeks after the first match against Motherwell had been postponed, a cancellation which of course triggered ‘Lone Gunmen’ (geeky X-Files reference) founder Mo Ross into a nonsensical bitter rant. This puzzling gap was perhaps a strong indication of what was coming in hindsight, however the SPFL had decided not to investigate Rangers in early November following two of their players organising a house party, adding to the Ibrox clubs list of COVID breaches including fielding a team who hadn’t been tested against Dundee United in a friendly.

The 6th November would finally witness Saints back in Premiership action, at home to a dismally unambitious Dundee Utd who parked the bus and left Paisley with a 0-0 draw, but the losing streak of six in the league was finally over, and we were now actually on an unbeaten three match run in all competitions for those who were being mega optimistic, still a minority at this point, and definitely didn’t include me to my eternal shame!

Next up was a return to the League Cup Group Stages and the visit of Greenock minnows, Morton FC, managed by ex-Livingston goon, David Hopkin. The first half was the expected stroll for Saints, who led 1-0 thanks to Jon Obika, after the Saints striker scored his first header for the club, incredible really when you consider the physique of the number nine.

The minnows rallied however in the second half, scoring a fortunate equaliser before the inevitable Saints win on penalties, but on occasions like this it is always about the little guy, and the Morton players can take to their graves the night they were level with the mighty St Mirren for a wee while. The VHS release will also be something else for the ‘Ton support.

With Queens Park waiting in the final match, who are a kind of Morton reserves with a few Falkirk rejects throw in, Saints had blown their chance of being seeded in the next round following the failure to beat Queen of the South and the Greenock side within 90 minutes, but any win would secure the group. Despite making very heavy weather of doing so at the national stadium even before Joe Shaughnessy was stupidly sent off again, we managed to eventually secure progress to the knockout stages courtesy of another Obika header, this time late in the match as we badly toiled.

It was hardly inspiring, but with Scotland qualifying for Euro 2020 a few days before, the mood was high in all Scottish football and in Renfrewshire Saints were now on a five-match unbeaten run. Any boasting about this of course was mostly us trying to convince ourselves that we had turned our poor form around as the performances were still below par, but this league cup group ‘success’ was the springboard for a great end to the year on the park.

By this point in the season, Saints had made another signing when twenty-one-year-old midfielder Jake Doyle-Hayes joined on a free transfer after his release by Aston Villa, with the playmaker looking very tidy in his first three matches, and it was the Irishman who won Saints a vital three points when his volley was deflected home at the Tony Macaroni on the 21st November to secure our first Premiership win since August, and end Gary Holt’s two and a half years fronting for David Martindale at the Lions.

The second round of the League Cup had drawn Saints at home to seeded Aberdeen on the 28th November, a good draw without doubt as McInnesball is more than manageable as long as you don’t concede first, not that the media seem to recognise this as you’d think we’d drawn Barcelona with Messi at his peak. Saints battered the Dons from early on, and led through Durmus after only four minutes but also wasting countless chances to increase this margin, allowing Aberdeen to equalise before half time with their only attack of the match.

McInnessball of course consists of 50% luck, 30% Lewis Ferguson diving and 20% Radio Scotland telling everyone how good Aberdeen are, so it probably wasn’t surprising that the Dons had fluked their way back into the match, but their luck ran out when Jamie McGrath thumped in a 20 yard winner in the last minute, giving Joe Lewis no chance with a piece of absolute genius. I’m only doing what Willie Miller would have done if the roles were reversed, and of course the Dons keeper flung the ball in the net following a tame effort from McGrath.

Aberdeen were also next up in the league the following week in early December, but before this Saints found out their fate from the SPFL when the results of their investigation and disciplinary hearing were announced on the 3rd December. It was probably no surprise we were found guilty as it appeared the SPFL were sharpening their big Victorian moustached shaped knife to plunge into us and Kilmarnock, but the punishment and reasoning left a bewildering feeling, after it was stated we would forfeit both postponed matches 3-0 and receive a suspended £40,000 fine for apparently gaining a “sporting advantage” when our players caught the most lethal and easily spreadable virus in over a century.

To analyse this decision and the severity of it could take a long time, but it doesn’t need a great deal of intelligence or the investigative skills of Sherlock Holmes to work out it is grossly disproportionate to the alleged offence and the SPFL have been completely inconsistent in dealing with clubs who have had COVID breaches from day one.

Of course, we should acknowledge our own failures in this though. Someone at the club was responsible for interpreting the various protocols needed to comply with Government legislation for elite sport and failed miserably. This poor piece of management put our own players at risk but that does not mean however that the SPFL have a duty to give us one of the harshest punishments ever handed out in the history of football in Scotland, and the use of the phrase “gaining a sporting advantage” tells me they know this but were desperate to wield their power, even after being DENIED by the clubs the right to inflict automatic 3-0 defeats by matches being postponed due to COVID.

Since the spring of last year, the SPFL board have attempted a power grab on the game to take control away from the clubs and allow themselves to rule without scrutiny, using COVID as a reason do so. The SPFL (SFL) and SFA hated the fact clubs used their power in 2012 to prevent the replacement Rangers entering at the top division against their “Armageddon” warnings, and then in 2019 relegated Hearts making Neil Doncaster really work for his salary.  Thankfully, our clubs have voted against this sneaky power grab now on at least two occasions, presumably as they don’t trust a bunch of moustached old men to make sensible or fair decisions, and this verdict backs this up.

The last time the planet was hit by a pandemic was in 1919 when the Spanish Flu spread throughout the world following the conclusion of WWI. Saints had many players fighting in this conflict, including goalkeeper John Richardson who survived the war but passed away from the Spanish Flu on the morning of February 22nd, 1919 as Saints took on Airdrie and lost 2-1. These were different times of course, and even a teammate dying wouldn’t postpone a match, but a century later the SPFL would have deemed this as “gaining a sporting advantage” if were unable to play the match. That’s how preposterous this is.

It is some leap to think that players catching a potentially deadly virus gave us an advantage, but when you consider what has went unpunished over the past thirty or so years in Scotland by the SFL/SFA/SPFL which most definitely fits into the “gaining a sporting advantage” category with ease, then it is quite simply astonishing they have went down this route with St Mirren and Kilmarnock for players eating a meal “too close” together.

The most obvious example is the old Rangers use of EBT’s, and the clear sporting advantage this gave over many years; yet no forfeits were ever handed out. Many other clubs won honours or gained an unfair advantage by spending wildly outside their means before entering administration and writing off 90% plus of the debt they accumulated, most notably Hearts with two Scottish Cups achieved under Romanov and Gretna who were no more than a village team without the ridiculous financial doping provided by a benefactor. Many other clubs fall into this category and gained a sporting advantage giving them false league positions, but the SPFL/SFL have only ever chosen to hit two clubs with this “gaining a sporting advantage” charge, and it was because their players car shared!

Added to this of course is the inconsistency from the SPFL when dealing with clubs over COVID issues. For example, Aberdeen and Celtic players seriously breached protocols in August but on both occasions could postpone and rearrange matches, even with their players INTENTIONALLY breaking the rules. Despite the SPFL and fans of these clubs stating that was a government decision to allow this rescheduling, the senior clinical advisor to the Scottish Government, Professor Jason Leitch, stated unequivocally on BBC Sportsound this was not the case, and it was the SPFL that made the decision. As FIFA famously do not care for government interference in football matters, I’m going to believe the Professor on that one.

Rangers have also had multiple breaches as mentioned above, but no investigation has taken place, indeed they were PRAISED, so the question is why are St Mirren and Kilmarnock being singled out? Is it simply because we had games postponed and there is no room for rescheduling, which according to the SPFL was the main reason we couldn’t rearrange our match against Hibs when we had no available keepers?

Even if this was true, it would be wrong to punish Saints and Killie for a tight league schedule, what would the SPFL do for matches postponed because of weather for example, the home side should forfeit? Absolutely no chance will that happen. Of course there was and still is room for rescheduling matches.

On the 30th November, the SPFL announced the Celtic v Hibernian match planned for the 9th January had been rescheduled at the request of the Glasgow club, despite Hibs objecting. It sounds utterly ludicrous, and it is. The reason Celtic wanted the match rescheduled was because they planned to take a weeklong trip to Dubai in early January, which the SPFL essentially ratified by rescheduling a match for them against the wishes of their opponent!

So, let’s get that straight. A club was denied a rescheduling request because they have no available goalkeepers due to a pandemic, but another club can do so because they want to go on holiday, even though their opponents object. Even for Scottish football where everything is set up for two Glasgow clubs, it is quite scandalous.

Thankfully we have appealed this decision, and the hearing will take place on the 14th January just under a week away, with Celtic still in Dubai as I write this free from SFA scrutiny despite players lounging about within a foot of one another drinking pints and fixing Diego Laxalt’s hair. You would think this alone would be enough to guarantee a Saints and Killie victory in the appeal, however the moustaches are stubborn types and I’m not so sure.

Back on the pitch, McInnesball returned to Paisley for that league match, and true to form Aberdeen took the lead with their first attack of the match as half time approached, despite Saints pressure from minute one. Luck again caught up with Aberdeen as Saints were awarded their first penalty of the season after clear handball by Toban a few minutes later, and Jamie McGrath coolly dispatched it beyond the lubed up digits of Joe Lewis.

Early in the second half, Lewis Ferguson was finally sent off after what seemed to be about his twentieth foul of the match, and in true Fergie style moaned about it like a petulant wee boy, which of course he is. It was probably the easiest red card decision Bobby Madden will ever make considering the number of fouls Ferguson committed between both yellow cards he received and his general conduct throughout the match, where he appeared to be in the game mode of a hungover wasp.

The propaganda arm of McInnesball, that 20% of the overall product which is formally known as BBC Sportsound, sprung to the defence of Ferguson calling the sending off “ridiculous” and “harsh”, in a collective show of defiance Dominic Cummings and Laura Kuenssberg were even embarrassed by. The radio show which is more pro-Aberdeen that the clubs own Red TV station, then posted a memo to Sportscene who also carried on this bizarre theme. It as almost as if a member or members of Ferguson’s family work for the BBC.

The match finished 1-1 as Aberdeen feigned injury and took their usual four minute throw ins to see the ninety minutes out, but Saints extended the unbeaten run to eight matches with Motherwell at Fir Park next, where the confidence of the team showed as another McGrath goal settled a scrappy match in Saints favour against the side who had benefited most from Saints and Kilmarnock harsh treatment and gained six points, masking their poor form throughout the calendar year.

By now, every Saints fan was taking notice of this form and even some in the media had something to say about it, with a brief mention on Radio Go Go Gadget Glasgow between an in depth analysis of why Alfredo Morelos is good enough for Bayern Munich and how Shane Duffy is misunderstood and not actually rubbish. However, Goodwin had found a settled side at last and most importantly a goal threat with the shape, mostly through the deployment of McGrath in the number 10 role and Connolly and Durmus on the wings. This was particularly effective due in no small part to Doyle-Hayes who was having a superb start at the club and Ethan Erhahon who was improving all the time, with both sitting a bit deeper and controlling matches.

The League Cup draw had been kind again to Saints as we had been handed a home match, with media darlings Rangers the opponents this time who were unbeaten all season, and according to the Daily Record the “greatest football side in the history of the sport” (I’m paraphrasing) who would win the match by at least twenty or thirty goals, maybe even forty if Andrew Dallas had his shooting boots on.

Rangers were however rocked by a late injury blow, when key man Dallas was injured in the warm up after over practising his most famous move of pointing firmly to the penalty sport for his heroes; inadvertently discovering he had no backbone and briefly panicking, forcing fourth official David Dickinson to take over as referee. Dallas however was content enough to be able to watch his team from the main stand along with various media personnel who had already scored James Tavernier 10/10 for the game before it had even started, and written edgy blogs about why he should be in the England squad.

Dallas was in celebratory mood early on when Conor Goldson far too easily strolled forward and gave the visitors the lead, and for the next twenty minutes or Saints struggled to get into the game, but in Dylan Connolly undoubtedly had someone that was troubling Rangers, and their young left back Calvin Bassey in particular was enduring a difficult time dealing with the powerful Irishman. It was the rapid Connolly who won a penalty as half time approached, when a terrified Bassey bundled him over and Jamie McGrath easily beat Angry Bear in the Rangers net, with Dallas apparently storming out the stadium in tears.

The match changed from this moment, and suddenly Saints looked the better side with the midfield now dominating. Early in the second half Connolly annihilated Bassey for the umpteenth time and his cross was controlled by Obika who laid it back for McGrath who superbly dribbled inside before wrong footing McGregor with a nonchalant stroke of his left boot. We had now officially entered the era of Jamie McGrath, and it was magnificent.

Saints looked very comfortable after this, but a late Davis goal gave Rangers an undeserved equaliser which only seemed to annoy the home side, and deep into stoppage time Conor McCarthy lashed home the winner high into the net following a great Tait header which had been superbly saved by the furious fingers of the permanently raging Rangers keeper.

It was a fine win, and Saints now face Livingston in the semi-final of the tournament on the 24th January, who have won every match since Walter White took full control of the cartel in November. It was however back to league action on the Saturday when St Johnstone visited Paisley, and the match was most unlike St Mirren after twice coming from behind and winning 3-2, thanks to late goals from Erwin and another Obika header. It was now eleven matches unbeaten and up to seventh in the league as the 3-0 forfeits were now suspended pending the appeal.

The unbeaten run was finally ended two days before Christmas however when Hibs won an even match 1-0 at Easter Road, but Saints were victorious in Dingwall a few days later after Marcus Fraser and Kristian Dennis secured a 2-0 win over nine men Ross County, now managed by the man who knocked Saints back in 2017 before turning up at Raith Rovers a few months later to mastermind an unlikely relegation; John Hughes.

This meant Rangers were up next again in the league at the SMISA Stadium, and despite Saints starting the match superbly well, a lucky deflected goal and a deplorable piece of slack defending by Joe Shaughnessy in the space of five crazy minutes, allowed the Ibrox side to take a 2-0 lead against the run of play, and see the second half out to record a shock win against their superior Paisley overlords.

As 2020 turned in 2021, the country was back in a full lockdown due to a new strain of COVID ripping through the population like Jamie McGrath dealing with Rangers defenders. England in particular has been badly hit, with matches off on an almost daily basis, but the clubs south of the border have retained complete support of the league organisations and there is no talk of forfeits; which makes you wonder why the SPFL chase such things until you remember the moustaches, padded elbow pads and pompous attitude of such power chasers who are pining for an opium den to fully get in touch with their Victorian role models.

Despite the lockdown, football continues for the moment and on a freezing cold day on the 3rd January, Saints made the short trip to Kilmarnock where on a rock solid surface both sides played out a predictably dour match which nevertheless will remembered for a long time due to the incredible ending to the game.

Kilmarnock had been leading for most of the 90 minutes after an early Danny Whitehall header, and as the match drifted towards a routine conclusion, enter the hero of the day for Saints; Killie ‘goalkeeper’ Danny Rogers. I’ve written about Rogers before on this site after his terrifying spell as Saints keeper in 2018 when Alan Stubbs decided to bring him in to compete for the number one slot with Craig Samson, and the words have never been kind; a theme which will continue below.

Rogers just didn’t seem suited to first team football at this level when at St Mirren, and the only people more nervous than him when he was between the sticks were the Saints fan watching him. In a game against Hamilton in November 2018 he conceded three times from three shots, aided by the quite incredible feat of Rogers punching a cross backwards and out for a corner that Dougie Imrie scored a header from. It is quite possibly the most ridiculous true sentence you will ever read, but the keeper surpassed even this deep into injury time.

Kyle McAllister hit one last desperate cross into the box, and the ball looped up into the air off a Killie player towards the back post but still at a height, angle and velocity you’d expect any keeper to comfortably save, even sub-standard ones like David Cornell or a blindfolded Les Fridge. Rogers looked up and clutched the ball a few feet from the goal line with all the conviction of Boris Johnson deciding whether to keep schools open, and most Saints fans I bet at this point thought something might still be on.

Unfortunately for Rogers, his legs and arms then decided to invoke the spirit of Will McKenzie from the Inbetweeners when he was high and panicking at a gig by doing random involuntary movements, and the Killie number somehow one managed to drag the ball over the line when under absolutely no pressure at all in some kind of weird tramp ballet, and it was 1-1 and a pretty good point considering the circumstances.

Since then, the focus of all of fans in Scotland has been on Celtic and their absurd trip to Dubai and how they are inevitably going to get away with it, but Saints have been active in the transfer window already, securing the signature of Scotland international Eamon Brophy from Kilmarnock on a pre-contract, with the move likely to brought forward to January based on what Alex Dyer and Jim Goodwin have said.

Out the door went Junior Morias, who signed a six-month loan deal with The Hundred Acre Wood and as confirmed by Jim Goodwin, the little Jamaican won’t be back or offered a new contract so his time at the club is therefore up. Morias was a hard-working player without doubt and although he wasn’t played as a striker too often, probably lacked the composure or technique to succeed at such a high level.

Another striker signed for the rest of the season a few days later when powerful German hitman Collin Quaner joined the club on the 8th January, a forward previously with Huddersfield Town and has played at a good level throughout his career it has to be said. These are interesting transfers in and out from Goodwin as he clearly sees his forward line as the area most needing strengthened. It is hard to disagree, and I would say we currently have a top six goalkeeper, defence and midfield with a Championship strike force, Obika aside.

The manager deserves massive credit for turning the season around however, and it would be totally unfair of me not to mention this considering the criticism I’ve had of Goodwin at points this campaign. It’s been a crazy season already with a long break between the previous term ending and this one starting, then he and the players had empty stadiums to adjust to, some farcical decisions going against us on and off the park, as well as the manager dealing with employees catching COVID and a mini enforced break during the season as a result of this.

Once we got going, we’ve undoubtedly been a good side, and should the appeal against forfeited matches be successful, we have a chance to remove any lingering doubts about relegation should we win even one of them, however as we currently sit seventh the focus is very much on finishing as high up the league as possible. Let’s see what the SFA and the next month bring us…………….