Historically, the League Cup group stages have been hard work for Saints, and this season proved no different as we were effectively knocked out after three matches following a disappointing performance against Livingston in the second fixture and a worrying capitulation at Firhill the following Saturday.
Last season of course Saints won three of their four matches and somehow still managed to finish third in a group of five, a real St Mirren way of being knocked out, but I remember around this time the good people at the Saints stats website, ‘St Mirren info’ putting a post-up saying we had only managed to qualify something like three times from over thirty-five seasons of the old League Cup Group stages. That’s real grim reading, and fits perfectly into the review of the 2017/18 League Cup campaign.
For some people, bizarrely in my opinion, they see these group stages as merely warm up matches, glorified friendlies almost. We can’t seriously be claiming that following the elongated celebrations from March 2013 that somehow matches in the same tournament only four years later are insignificant, can we?
Not in my book anyway, and before a ball was kicked I expected the same three wins from four matches as the season before, and possibly a result at Firhill depending on what shape the side was in. This would surely be enough to qualify this season.
The much anticipated first match of the group stages was played on the 15th July at Stranraer, and backed by a support of close to 500, Saints went behind early on thanks to a goal from former Saints player and big Ranjurs tweeter, Scott Agnew, one of several dozen central midfielders who did not make the grade at Paisley over the past few seasons.
Saints reacted well to this, and by half time found themselves comfortably 3-1 up thanks to debut goals from Gavin Reilly and Ross Stewart, as well as a Lewis Morgan drive. In the second half, another debutant scored when Gregor Buchanan met an Ian McShane corner to give the Paisley side a comprehensive victory, which I certainly expected before the match.
McShane was signed the day before from Ross County, and apparently he is a creative midfielder with a good set piece delivery, and perhaps a more similar player to Stevie Mallan, although nobody should be considered a direct replacement for the Barnsley midfielder as it is unrealistic to expect somebody of the quality arriving whilst we remain a Championship club.
Of the 500 or so Buddies that travelled down the coast to Stranraer, a group of fans decided to travel by train to the match, and it was reported on the Black and White Army forum and also on Facebook that hotbed of utter pedantic nonsense, that a small group of ‘younger’ supporters were both drinking on the train, and shockingly speaking louder than others at certain points of the journey, but not all of the time, just parts of it. Another fan then claimed that these yoofs never put their empty cans in the bins provided. Hang them!!!
This of course is hardly utterly outrageous behaviour, but for many Saints fans not present the tipping point was a picture on Twitter showing some of these happy younger fans eating from tubes of ready salted Pringles, which is a circular shaped potato snack for those angry fans that were complaining about the noise and missed this fact. A disgrace to the club, the lot of you should be ashamed. You know who you are!
Next up was a familiar/boring clash with Livingston on the Tuesday night after this, and a chance for the home support to see the new look side in action. Livingston of course are managed by ex-Morton goon David Hopkin, a man who had tattoos long before it was trendy, but it wasn’t a fashion statement back in the 1990’s when only two types of people had ink; rock stars and nutcases, and I’m certain Hopkin can’t sing or play music.
Livingston started very well, and took the lead with just over a minute played when Dale Carrick slammed home from 18 yards after some dreadful defending by Saints. They almost doubled their lead no more than a minute later after some more comic cut stuff by Gary Irvine, but a combination of Stelios and Samson saved Saints on this occasion.
As the game went on, Saints did come into it, and should have equalised on a number occasions in the first period as they finished the half very strongly, but that was basically as good as it got for Saints as Livingston then reverted to how we have remembered them over the past few seasons, a team that likes to put the boot in, dive and time waste.
Particularly bad for sticking the boot in was Declan Gallagher, a centre half who is one of the many Scots that owns a baseball bat but no baseball, and after doing a stretch in prison after some handy work with his beloved weapon, Livingston resigned him immediately on his release to the horror of their outraged sponsors.
Gallagher was joined on the park kicking Saints players by Danny Mullen, a player who has previous form as he carried out that quite ridiculous kung-fu kick on Jordan Stewart in the 2015 League Cup match, and he ran about this entire match as angry as a Dundee player looking for another victim.
Mullen, with blond highlights in his hair, or “streaks” as Davie Hopkin calls them, had an accomplice on the wing, his namesake Josh Mullen, who tried to take out Gary MacKenzie with a knee-high studs up tackle. The Mullen’s may appear like some kind of footballing Jedward, but in reality they are much more hideous and it’s only a matter of time before they meet their much deserved comeuppance on the field. Hopefully this is in a match against Saints.
As Saints pushed for an equaliser, a clearance from one of Livingstons’s hoofball specialists bounced into the technical area and was launched backwards into the main stand by Livingston assistant manager, David Martindale. Like Gallagher, he is another who has spent time in prison, six years apparently, and there seems to more criminals on Livingston’s books than David Hopkin has real teeth.
The Livingston management team seemed to take brief exception to the abuse from Saints fans, but unlike the wee fluffy and cuddly Neil McCann who tried to intimidate the home support a few weeks earlier and was laughed at, one look from Hopkin had people scurrying for exits and diving behind chairs, one fan with a visibly upset child even offered Hopkin £200 if he “never turned around again”.
At full time it finished 1-0 Livingston, and a surprisingly flat performance from Saints was greeted with indifference from the support. In general the team seemed a bit disjointed and ineffective up front, and a lot of work was needed.
After that disappointment, onto Saturday and a trip to Frihill, a favourite ground for Saints fans and close to one thousand travelled to Glasgow to see the Hipsters and Thespians XI host the Paisley club. Jack Ross decided to make several changes, and with injuries and suspension also having an impact on the line-up, before the match I considered the starting XI pretty weak in truth, and by half time my fears were realised as Thistle has exploited these weaknesses by striding into a four-goal lead.
The second half may not have seen the same number of goals, but in many ways it was worse. Thistle went down to 10 men after an hour, and then immediately scored a fifth, making the last half hour even more painful as Saints deliberated and toiled against a side in cruise control. To make it worse, Thistle fans were mocking us through their handmade lentil scarves, and quite rightly taunting our pathetic efforts of even getting a shot on target.
Some Thistle fans even flung their olives at our players, and a Belle and Sebastian vinyl whisked past Darren Whyte as they got into full voice. Make no mistake; this was humiliation on a Brian Blessed size scale.
After the match, the group of ‘younger’ fans who were named and shamed at Stranraer left quietly and dejected, one bespectacled fan in particular seemed to sum up the performance as he was arm deep in a tube of barbeque Pringles, desperately looking for one more treat but alas like Saints hopes for the tournament, it was empty. An older man sporting cream catalogue chinos that went up to his chest and a pair of brown moccasins that couldn’t quite hide his white socks, tutted at the young fan and later posted on facebook that he felt threatened by a yoof full of buckfast fisting a tube of potato snacks. Other older men liked the post.
In all seriousness though, this was a spectacularly dire performance and also a bit worrying, but nobody should be panicking yet. However, getting beat is one thing, but this was gutless and not what any of us expected from a Jack Ross side. I thought the days of this sort of defeat happening ended in the January transfer window, and having faced the best part of three straight seasons watching players not care about what was happening on or off the park it felt rather hollow watching something like that again so soon after we all though it had been eradicated.
Quite rightly the team was criticised, including tweets by myself, however a section of the support seems to think this was uncalled for. Instead of debating why it wasn’t a poor performance though, all these fans wanted to do was shut down the conversation by demanding you stop criticising the manager and players.
Not sure how that is going to help, but nobody was talking about boycotting matches or booing the players in the next game, all that was said was it was a very poor performance, Alex Rae or Ian Murray level of poor. If the players can’t handle that, then they are not mentally strong enough to play for a club that intends to be back in the top division at the end of this season. This isn’t some kind of free ride where they pick up a wage every week without scrutiny.
I have strong belief that Jack Ross will fix the issues with the team. He is both tough mentally and he knows what he is doing. If the players he brought in don’t do the business, he won’t blindly pick them. Last season, Loy, Stelios and Fjelde all found themselves benched at points or dropped completely, despite being brought in by the boss and this will repeat itself I believe should the Thistle farce happen again.
With the side all but eliminated now, Saints faced Airdreionians, formerly Airdrie United who cold heartedly killed Clydebank at the start of the century for their own means after the original Airdrie were killed off, ironically by the pen of David Murray as they owed old Rangers money.
The irony in all of this is quite spectacular of course, but this rather bland reincarnation of the original dirtiest side in football history, Alex McDonald’s 1990’s Airdrie who make Livingston look like choir boys, are also in financial trouble and may not see out the season. Perhaps Clydebank will buy them and change their name back to what it should be.
This Airdrie couldn’t live up to the billing of nasty, vicious underdogs with picket line breaking goalkeepers however, and were swept aside with utter ease by a score of 5-0, with a Gavin Reilly double the highlight, and just to prove he is fitting in nicely at Paisley the forward even missed a penalty to make it one scored from the last six awarded in Saints favour, and now five missed in a row at home.
And that should have been the end of another rather disappointing League Cup group stage, but later that night possibly fuelled by mind inducing drugs, Airdrie rather bizarrely released a statement about the match, stating that Saints goalkeeper Craig Samson had “the game of his life”.
It must be difficult being Airdrie, having no money and Gordon Dalzeil in the dugout, but Samson had three saves in the space of ninety seconds denying them a goal at best, and considering he saved a penalty against Celtic in a national cup semi-final that Saints went on to win, I hardly think big Sammy will be telling his grandchildren about the day he stopped a third-tier side grabbing a consolation goal in a meaningless cup match.
This ludicrous statement perhaps suited the mood of the 2017 League Cup for Saints; however nothing will sum up the group stages more than the tutting Baby Boomer at Maryhill as the can of Pringles was being fisted.