2018/19 – The League Cup Preface

Despite having lost our manager a few weeks earlier, July started with a sense of optimism after former Hibernian boss Alan Stubbs was installed as the man to replace Jack Ross, who had moved to third tier English club Sunderland following a drawn out four-week saga that has soured his relationship with a section of the support I suspect forever.

There was much debate about this move to Sunderland for Ross, with our now former manager spending the majority of May waiting on Ipswich Town to decide whether they wanted him or not, and then at the last minute without Saints permission he agreed terms with the Mackems, with his Saints salary and his proposed new one leaked to a gleeful media, prompting bizarre claims from some Saints supporters that we can’t expect Ross to live on the £70k a year we were paying him!

As Jack Ross himself had pointed out at the end of last season, (ironically in a speech where he stated he would be here for the Premiership), he was always going to be a temporary measure at Saints and the fans are the permanent fixture of the club. He was of course correct, and for that reason I wasn’t personally impressed with his conduct in the last few weeks of his employment as I put the club before any manager or player. I am a St Mirren fan, not a Jack Ross fan.

This wait on Ipswich Town put the club effectively into a state of Limbo, and due to the uncertainty on where our manager would be employed in the coming months we missed out on practically all our alleged main Scottish targets who signed for other clubs or stayed where they were. These players were rumoured to be Nicky Clarke and Kalum Higginbotham of Dunfermline, Falkirk’s Craig Sibbald and Captain Catman himself, Tam O’Ware.

Whether any of these rumours were true we will probably never know, but not many players will sign for a club where the current manager has held talks with three clubs in as many months and was clearly desperate for a gig down south to boost his bank balance, Jim Kellerman and Paul McGinn aside apparently.

What became prominent during this period in social media was a fairly fierce split between the support on whether Jack Ross had the right to use the club so callously, and between this and the utterly ludicrous decision of the board to allow Celtic and Rangers supporters to use the South Stand this season, the collective harmony nurtured so well by everyone in the last 18 months had vanished quicker than a steak bake within arm’s reach of wee John Robertson, so it was welcome news that Stubbs was appointed manager and we could concentrate on the football again.

However, this positivity of early July ebbed away in the first few weeks of the month as the rebuilding job promised by the new manager stuttered somewhat into an eventual stall, and the only signings were from the depths of English football and a couple on loan before we played Kilmarnock on the 13th July to officially start the domestic season in Scotland in a League Cup group match.

One of these new players from the sixth tier of English football was Josh Heaton, a centre half signed for £75k from Darlington, which was the biggest fee paid out by Saints since we purchased Lex Baillie from Celtic for £90k in July 1991, hopefully that is where the similarities end between the two defenders.

With the squad looking short of both quality and depth compared with last season, a lot of trepidation was prevalent before the match against a good Kilmarnock side, and the starting XI witnessed full debuts for new signings Paul McGinn, Cole Kpewpka and Hayden Coulson along with young Cammy MacPherson, but Saints played superbly for long spells of the match proving the doubters like myself wrong and the 0-0 final result was flattering on the Ayrshire side, who were finally defeated via a penalty shoot-out where Craig Samson excelled, but the day belonged to left back Coulson who had a sensational debut.

Optimism and the swagger were now back big style, and with the promise of some big name signings from the manager in the minutes after the Kilmarnock match things suddenly looked brighter than Mark Kerr’s face when he was chasing Lewis Morgan last season.

Next up in the League Cup was non-league Spartans, and an introduction to the Saints support of all of the manager’s new signings. A win was expected, and a big one also, but alarmingly several players looked out their depth against the fifth tier Lowland League outfit, and early in the second half after some calamitous defending and goalkeeping we found ourselves 2-0 down at home against the Edinburgh club.

Now whether you consider this a “pre-season” match or not, this had us on course for our poorest ever result in a competitive game, make no mistake about that. Even clawing it back to 2-2 and winning on penalties thanks entirely to Stephen McGinn being introduced to proceedings didn’t disguise the fact it wasn’t good enough, and thankfully the manager stated so unequivocally after the game.

With that thankfully over, we now waited on Sunderland at home and a return to St Mirren Park for Jack Ross who was given a nice reception from the Saints support, but six goals with no reply for the Mackems later put more fear into the support with the league season not far away.

It was quite simply an utterly embarrassing result against a third tier English side and I couldn’t care less how many season tickets they have sold or that it was only a friendly; that opinion needs stated. We looked like a side that wouldn’t cope with the Championship never mind the top tier, but there was still time before the season kicks off and it nobody was in full scale Tommy Craig panic mode yet.

A few days later we travelled to Hampden to face League Two amateur side Queens Park, managed by another former Saints boss, this time Gus MacPherson,  and again we struggled badly only winning on penalties after an utterly dire 0-0 where the only highlight was a dead pigeon falling from the beak of a seagull, and rumours that Alan Stubbs failed to agree terms with it in the main stand after the match remain unconfirmed, but by now panic had set in from a section of the support about the coming season. Things would improve however.

In the days after this, Matty Willock signed from English top tier outfit Manchester United, and made his debut the following day as Saints annihilated Dumbarton 6-0, a most welcome result with the league season only a week away at this point, and of course Dumbarton still have a number of Alex Rae imposters and Stevie Aitken in charge, so it is always good to get one over on them.

The difference between this and the previous three matches was simple; Cammy Smith was not playing as a winger and reverted back to his more natural number 10 role, causing Dumbarton so many problems a numb Stevie Aitken allowed his goalkeeper to take a quick goal kick without much fuss as he sat on his bench thinking back to happier times when Alan Martin would pull up his socks 32 times and feign injury before clearing a ball, the good old “eight minute” goal kick he was famous for when playing Saints in days gone by.

Suddenly however, and without much warning the team looked decent again thanks to the diamond formation allowing players to perform in their natural positions, and the return to the first team of Kyle Magennis from injury, forming a good-looking midfield with Willock beside him, McGinn behind and Smith at the tip of the diamond. This was much more like it, but in reality Dumbarton caused as much threat as James Marwood as a lone frontman and tougher tests would lie ahead.

It had been a tough first full month for Alan Stubbs, not only was he replacing an extremely successful and popular manager in Jack Ross, but he missed out on a crucial part of the pre-season where Scottish based players were out of contract perhaps forcing him to look at an English market with very little value in it.

His job was to qualify from the group stages, and let’s be honest he couldn’t have handpicked an easier group unless Panama had been introduced, but he got there in the end and will have learned a lot about the players still at the club, as well as his new ones.

Three players of course till at the club in July were Gary MacKenzie, Adam Eckersley and Ian McShane, three important players who had been instrumental in getting Saints out of the Championship the previous season, and of course the two defenders had been critical in keeping us up the season before also.

It was therefore a real surprise to read they had been made available for transfer, particularly as MacKenzie undoubtedly remains the best centre half at the club by a fair distance; with Stubbs himself probably second at the moment to be honest.

Off the park, with a number of signing targets allegedly missed by the club the squad remains drastically short of cover and quality to stay in the division in my opinion at the moment, but the transfer window has a full month to go yet so we will hopefully be a much stronger position by the end of August.

One thing I am doing differently this season is marking players out of 10 for each competitive match, and it is perhaps an indicator of how the team struggled in an easy League Cup group that the joint top performer for July was Craig Samson with average score of 7.3 over three matches he played in, with Stephen McGinn hitting the same score over the four games.

The top five for July were as follows, with the qualifying criteria making appearances in a minimum of half the available competitive fixtures:

Player Rating
Craig Samson7.3
Stephen McGinn7.3
Hayden Coulson7.0
Cammy McPherson7.0
Cammy Smith6.5