It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Runaway winners of the Championship last time around with a swashbuckling side and brilliant young manager, at the end of last season this 2018/19 campaign was looked upon as an opportunity to re-establish ourselves quickly as a top league club that should be respected; the next stage of our path back to something much better than the shambles of the Craig/Murray/Rae years.
With one third of our scheduled matches now played, that positive outlook seems as likely as John Robertson becoming a voice coach for James Earl Jones, but due to the incredible levels of utter pishness in the bottom half of the Premiership, we somehow don’t even occupy bottom spot at the moment.
I always believe that staying in the top league is easier than getting out of the Championship, and this term so far is further proof of that. Even in our last season in the top flight, the days of Callum Ball, James Marwood , Viktor Genev and Tommy Craig’s bowling jumper, Saints only finished six points behind Motherwell who we haemorrhaged nine points to over the season. Effectively, we were one more win over the ‘Well from entering the play off and possibly avoiding relegation.
The only good thing right now is if we can somehow manage to get better this season even outright safety is not a ridiculous aim, as silly as that sounds at the moment.
The issue however is the damage already done since the end of last season may well be irreparable for this time around, which is staggering in itself considering our now former manager Alan Stubbs only lasted seventy seven long days in charge, where he was like the human equivalent of a runaway steam roller entering the World Subbuteo Championships, smashing everything in his path, his methods leaving decent players apparently unable to play anymore.
Before I get to Stubbs sacking however, we need to go back to the beginning of the league season and a warm summer afternoon in August when the Championship flag was unfurled in front of a large crowd that included a good Dundee support of over a thousand.
Usually the first league match of any campaign has a sense of optimism for what lies ahead, however with the simplest League Cup group possible on paper negotiated with all the ease of Ryan Hardie attempting long division, even before a ball was kicked in the Premiership it had become something of a chore watching Saints under Stubbs.
However, in what was a very entertaining match and pretty good performance it has to be said that day, Saints triumphed 2-1 thanks to a Danny Mullen double and an outstanding penalty save from Craig Samson in the second half. Ultimately, this was to be the pinnacle of the Stubbs management reign, and the exception to some pretty horrifying performances over his brief time in charge. It should also never be forgotten that shiny TV pundit Neil McCann was outwitted by Stubbs, meaning his management ability is lower than Ian McCall’s voice after 60 rapid Capstan.
On the Monday after the match, Ross Stewart was sold for a reported £40,000 to Ross County and although it is probably unlikely the big striker would ever have been good enough to play regularly for the club, it continued the trend of Stubbs getting rid of players before replacing them, with the only left winger on the clubs books Miles Hippolyte also sold weeks before this with no replacement forthcoming.
This meant the club now has nobody called Ross Stewart employed as a player anymore, so the utter confusion this caused some supporters in the Main Stand last season can finally end. I mean, with one being a goalkeeper that never played and the other a striker on loan at Alloa, how were they ever supposed to tell the difference?
With three very welcome points in the bag, Stubbs “reinforced” our attacking options with giant Danish striker Nicolai Brock-Madsen arriving on loan from Birmingham City ahead of our next match against Scotland’s newest but most bitter club, The Rangers.
This was a historic occasion as Saints hadn’t played a top flight match against opposition formed in the current decade since they met Aberdeen in 1906, so this was a fairly unique event in itself against a club most of us have suits older than, but the paranoid and vile baggage has carried and multiplied from dead club to the zombie revival in huge quantities, and this made the match avoidable for a large section of our support, but the away end was still sold out nonetheless.
The Rangers fans didn’t disappoint and the usual array of ‘illegal anywhere except football stadiums’ songs blared out, along with the expected shower of coins, pies, drinks and bottles launched at the Saints support, with a young girl being struck with one after Alfredo Morellos had scored, an insult in itself after the SFA appeals panel had inexplicably reversed his red card from the previous week after he lashed out and struck Scott McKenna of Aberdeen. I say inexplicably, but no chance were The People being left without any available strikers for a league match.
Also off the park in the stands, LGBT socialist group ‘The Union Bears’, had arranged a display for the 49,000 Rangers fans in attendance to hold up before the match that collectively was supposed to read something like “This is our club, This is our city” with an image of what looked like Papa Smurf inexplicably included for good measure.
As they aren’t the brightest fans, in fact Ryan Hardie is well above average IQ, this was posted days before the match on social media allowing one small and simple but highly effective banner to be made up by the Northbank reading “Your club is dead, Your city is shite”, which Robert Tannahill himself couldn’t have put any better, and this piece of genius took all the attention including that of the media.
Back on the field, and The Rangers were dominant, quickly moving into a 2-0 lead not helped by a dismal Saints performance where we could barely muster a shot at goal despite the Ibrox side being reduced to ten men for an hour or so. This was far more in line with what we had witnessed in League Cup matches, a disorganised and heartless side that seem completely unconvinced by what they were being asked to do.
Next up was a League Cup last 16 match at Pittodrie, and the alarm bells started ringing even louder following a quite appalling performance from Saints that started straight from kick off when the Dons almost scored after 10 seconds, but it didn’t take them long to find the net and it was easily 3-0 by half time, but could honestly have been six or seven.
By full time, most Saints fans had given up, a bit like some of our defenders who actually stopped running when Aberdeen scored their third, but thankfully the Dons let us off the hook and it finished at only 4-0 as Willie Miller battered himself dizzy at his rampant Dons, however my fears of receiving a club record defeat under Stubbs were growing by the week; a bit like the rumours of unrest within the club about how the manager was dealing with players.
It was back to the league after that, and another two new arrivals made their debuts against Livingston at Paisley. Alfie Jones who was a Southampton player with no first team experience, not exactly what we needed at this point most would have agreed, but he was put straight into the first team in place of Jack Baird who dropped onto the bench.
At right back was Lee Hodson, signed on loan from Rangers, meaning our entire back four were players not at the club last season and it showed as Livingston ruthlessly bullied them as most supporters expected, and the gang of criminals and crooks easily won 2-0 with Saints again failing to muster any shots on goal. It was frankly diabolical.
In the hours before match, rumours emerged that Cammy Smith had been dropped and told to find a new club by Stubbs and indeed the overwhelming player of the season last term was not included in the starting XI, sparking quite a clamour for the manager to be removed from his post. As unlikely as it seemed so early in the season, Stubbs days were now well and truly numbered.
Just over a week later following another pitiful performance at Tynecastle, the board reacted by sacking Stubbs and replacing him quickly with Oran Keareny who had impressed during the interview process in the summer and apparently the Irishman was more in the Jack Ross style of management than the disgruntled loner persona adopted by Stubbs
Sections of the media were scathing about Saints sacking a manager so early in the season, particularly the many with Celtic leanings, but some of them did get it; Stubbs had recruited badly, seemed strangely abrasive towards the players he inherited and on the surface made little effort to integrate himself to the club and support. Of course, nine games is a short time at a club and although I personally felt he wasn’t up to the job, I thought he’d last until Christmas, so credit to the board for acting quickly and attempting to at least salvage early the disaster Stubbs had created.
Undoubtedly Stubbs biggest issue was his dreadful recruitment. For several years now people in England tell us that Scottish football is a joke or a pub league, and despite Stubbs having played and managed here, I can only conclude that he agreed by bringing up a whole host of pub players from England.
If you are like me and don’t rate English football, you may well have had real concerns when you looked at the career history of the players brought in by Stubbs and concluded almost one by one without even seeing them perform that most of these players would be nowhere near good enough to play in the Scottish Premiership.
You simply can’t go seamlessly from the sixth tier in England to top flight football in Scotland, or be nowhere near good enough for the fourth tier and suddenly be up to the standard for playing here. The fact that Stephen McGinn on two occasions stated in the media that he had to remind these new players that it wasn’t a stroll in Scotland, told me all I need to know. They were sold an easy ride by Stubbs, and they were all found out against a non-league side in Spartans and an amateur one in Queens Park, including Stubbs. From here it escalated quickly into what I can only call a complete embarrassment on the field.
I could easily pick a 1-11 of utter dross we have signed from England in the last five years with substitutes, and unless managers and clubs in Scotland stop filling their squads up with sub-standard players from down south then the quality in Scotland will drop even further. Jamie Vardy is a one in 25 years anomaly, and the lower leagues in England are not full of amazing players waiting on professional contracts. They are exactly what they should be, low skilled and below average players you find in the lower leagues of any country.
Stubbs approach to man management and decision making also requires very close scrutiny. He repeatedly said he needed physicality in the team, yet transfer listed our biggest and most aggressive player in Gary MacKenzie, and then pointed out when the centre half was injured that this was limiting his option defensively, despite signing no fewer than three centre backs, a left back and a right back, none of whom have improved the squad.
Similar to MacKenzie, Stubbs also transfer listed Adam Eckersley without seeing him play for the club. Rumours of historical issues between the two going back to their Hibs days immediately surfaced, and although nobody knows for definite that this was personal other than the men involved, it did seem very strange that two players so instrumental in not only saving the club from relegation but promoting us, were deemed not good enough so early.
Of course, every manager has the right to drop or transfer list players, but like Charlie Nicholas describing something on Soccer Saturday, this really made no sense. If a manager does come in with an iron fist and wants to replace a successful squad with his own players, then the new players must be better than what is being discarded and performances good, but none of this was the case.
In my opinion the squad Stubbs left would struggle to survive in the Championship, never mind the Premiership, and the winning mentality he inherited replaced with self-doubt and a creeping losing streak that at the time of writing is now a full blown form crisis.
Why Stubbs decided to go about managing in in this manner is open for debate. Personally I think he lacked confidence to lead a dressing room with established footballers and instead of asserting himself he tried to replace the core of the title winning squad with younger untried players he thought he could control, and it failed as spectacularly as anything we have seen in recent years at the club. It was like Callum Ball entering a sprint against Usain Bolt so out of his depth Stubbs and most of his players were.
Rumours had been flying about for several weeks before the sacking that Stubbs had told the players he inherited that they had “achieved nothing” and they should hand their league winning medals to Lewis Morgan, suggesting we were a one man team. Again we don’t know if this true, however a number of ex-professionals on Twitter suggested this was the case, and one ex Saints player even stated he had heard the entire first squad had been told they can find new clubs.
If true, this is completely reckless management by Stubbs. It’s not good practice in any industry never mind one so dependent on confidence to tell your staff they are essentially worthless. His limitations as a manager ultimately cost him his job, but what will his almost useless legacy mean for Oran Kearney and more importantly St Mirren?
Off the park, early signs were encouraging. Helped by an international break, Darren Jackson was relieved of his duties a few days after Stubbs was sacked. Jackson was an extremely unpopular player with the Saints support following a scandalous challenge on Les Fridge in the late 1980’s, and this resentment seemed to continue in his brief spell as assistant manager as he was made as welcome as Michael Barrymore at a pool party, and I have yet to speak to a Saints fan who felt sorry for either about losing their jobs.
With only Brian Rice remaining on the coaching staff from Stubbs time, now as assistant manager, Kearney made his first signing by tempting Anton Ferdinand to the club for the rest of the season. With over 200 matches in the English top flight, this is exactly the sort of signing most fans expected after winning promotion and despite being nowhere near fit the centre half went straight into the starting line-up against Celtic along with Stubbs last singing, Ryan Edwards who arrived on loan from Hearts.
With morale high but expectations still very low, Saints did what Saints usually do, and produced a magnificent performance particularly in the first half against the champions, and were undoubtedly the better side as it finished 0-0 and hopes were raised again that things might be alright. It was a false dawn though.
The following week, Saints were thumped away from home by a poor Hamilton Accies side in front of a very large away support, and this was the start of a six match losing streak where particularly away from home we look as comfortable as a Livingston player getting his laptop repaired.
Another heavy defeat at Pittodrie, this time in the league, and a dreadful performance at Perth were separated by decent home performances against Hibernian and Kilmarnock where only some pretty poor decisions from the match officials stopped us getting at least a point on each occasion, but the defeats are piling up quicker than Lawrence Shankland’s short size when he was a player at Paisley.
Our only two goals in this period were scored by yet more signings, with Canadian striker Simeon Jackson grabbing a late consolation against Aberdeen, and winger Adam Hammill putting us in front against Kilmarnock before the Ayrshire side mounted a strong second half comeback.
Again, both these signings are more in line with the standard we are currently operating at and a vast improvement on what Stubbs left behind, although I think Kyle Hutton himself would probably be better than some of the players recruited by the ex-Celtic defender. I’m being serious.
Kearney has already started the clear out however, with Brock-Madsen returning to Birmingham City after four matches where I scored him an average of 4.4 out of 10 over his five appearances for the club in my player ratings system, the pitiful score summing up the contribution of the Danish striker. In fact I have contributed more to St Mirren on the field of play by throwing a stray ball to Martin Baker in 1994 allowing him to take a quick throw in.
Also out the door was Hayden Coulsen, back to Middlesbrough. The full back had a couple of good games, but defensively made Stelios look like Franco Baresi, and he was far too raw and inexperienced to play at such a high level in my opinion. With an average rating of 5.3 out of 10 over his eleven matches it sums up our summer recruitment when I would consider Coulsen the pick of Stubbs signings. It really was that bad.
More players are sure to follow, and it can’t be quickly enough to be honest as the team desperately flounders week to week. It is painful viewing at the moment, and the brilliant sixteen months under Jack Ross increasingly looks like an oddity in the context of the last four years as we seem to have got into a bad habit of appointing managers not good enough, and I am not including Kearney in that yet.
To coincide with the managerial change however, the board decided to alter the long term infra-structure of the club and appoint a Technical Director, with former Saints boss Gus MacPherson recruited for the position. Time will tell if this works, but it should help the stability of the club and that surely can’t be a bad thing, although the 2010 League Cup final still has deep scars and some fans will need convinced of this.
The final match in a dire October was at home against Motherwell rather appropriately on Halloween as it transpired, and at the risk of sounding like a tabloid headline writer, it was indeed another horror show from Saints.
For this match, Oran Kearney decided to completely revamp the shape of the team by going to a 3-4-2-1 formation, nothing wrong with that, and I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that a video was released a few days beforehand where Jack Ross explained the benefits of this system and how he used it perfectly in the 3-0 defeat of Dundee United last season.
What I did find strange however was the decision to drop Jack Baird and put Paul McGinn to centre half with Matty Willock also missing as Ryan Flynn partnered Stephen McGinn in central midfield. In my opinion Baird has been one of our better players this season, and adds physicality against a Motherwell side famous for their robust approach to matches.
Willock on the other hand has been very inconsistent, but at over six foot was also more suited to the match than a winger like Flynn playing in a central position. It’s just my opinion, and I would add at this point that I have great sympathy with Kearney working with a completely unbalanced squad everyone knows isn’t good enough to compete at this level, so I’m not going overboard with criticism for that very reason.
However, I do expect more from the team. The players are clearly suffering from a confidence crisis and morale is probably low, but they continue to look like strangers on the park and no real improvement has been witnessed, when the least I expected at this stage was small signs of progress, absolutely anything to show that we are on the right road, but it’s yet to really come.
The lame and frankly humiliating 2-0 defeat to Motherwell was yet another match where we failed to fashion any chances, which by my reckoning is the fifth time this season that has happened in just sixteen matches. It’s painful and awkward to watch, like being a stuck in a lift with wee John Robertson and Alan Preston when your “Oh when the Saints” ringtone goes off, you just want out of the stadium quickly.
In my opinion only new players can fix this. We have used twenty eight so far this season, a staggering number which doesn’t include soon to be fit again Adam Eckersley and Gary MacKenzie, and by my scoring system only five players have an average of over 6.0 out of 10 over the season, and nobody even reaches 7.0.
Currently we are on a ten match run without a win, and have collected just four points in the first round of league fixtures, i.e. eleven matches. If we continue to accumulate points at this rate over the season we are on course for a total of just fourteen by the end of the thirty eight matches, with just seventeen goals scored and eighty conceded.
Unfortunately for Oran Keanrey as much of this is not his doing, one point from his opening seven league matches is the poorest start of any manager in our history, overtaking Jack Ross who turned out not so bad, therefore hope does remain.
At his previous post Keareny proved to be a slow burner and more a long term option than quick fix, and having given up his job and moved country, he deserves time to try and recruit a squad he wants.
It is inconceivable in my opinion that bottom club Dundee will continue to be so bad, but even so would anyone fancy us in a play-off? January is only two months away, but with 30 points up for grabs before then we could practically be relegated before the winter break, so we need to start collecting points as soon as possible. If that means setting up for a string of 0-0 results in the very short term, so be it. I don’t want to return to Championship with the Catmen and wee Robbo.
In summary, it has been as bad an opening start to a season that I can ever remember. We have been so poor that Stevie May managed to score against us, Hamilton with around 500 fans at a home match thrashed us, and even Sam Cosgrove who apparently hadn’t scored since Primary school managed not one, but two in a match against us!
We are an off-form team and players dream if you are scheduled to play us, and for us to have any chance in the remainder of the season this needs to change and very quickly.
Top League Players (Average score out of 10)
Craig Samson – 6.5
Simeon Jackson – 6.4
Anton Ferdinand 6.3
Jack Baird – 6.3
Danny Mullen – 6.1
Kyle Magennis – 6.0