With the League Cup consigned to history for another season, Saints could now concentrate on the Championship, and despite only confirming second tier status in the final seconds of the last match of the previous season, expectations were high for this term due to the outstanding form in the run in.
The bookies had Saints second favourites for the title, only slightly ahead of Dundee United, and were offering rather miserable odds of around 3/1 for a party in Paisley come late April 2018. Personally I couldn’t really see the logic in this mega confidence in Saints, with the loss of Stevie Mallan and what I perceived before a ball was kicked as a failure to replace Rory Loy, in my opinion the starting XI was weaker than at the end of last season. That said I still see Saints being top four at the end of the season barring sales of players or long-term injuries to key players such as Lewis Morgan or Stephen McGinn.
Saints had been handed not only a tough opener on the 5th August at home to Falkirk who many expected to actually win the division, but a difficult first five matches where trips to Greenock and Livingston followed the opener, and then came back to back home matches against league favourites Dundee United and recently relegated Inverness. This would test the new squad to the limit to see if the bookies were indeed correct to have Saints at such short odds.
The league opener is always an event in itself, where optimism is often misplaced but hope is high with most supporters of every club. The stats for Saints are well known, just eight wins in the previous forty-two openers and no wins at all since 2006/07, so despite the optimism there was also a feeling of trepidation going into the Falkirk match.
The Bairns had reshaped their squad also, managing to secure Rory Loy over Saints and had had a fine League Cup group stage, so it was no surprise when they brought a decent and noisy support of just over a thousand to Paisley for this opener.
The match kicked off, and any anxiety felt by Saints fans beforehand seemed justified as the Bairns piled forward and took the lead after only a minute when Nathan Austin twisted his body to head a Samson parry towards goal, and despite the best efforts of the keeper to keep the ball out the referee judged it to have crossed the line, although interestingly the linesman did not. However, this was still the worse possible start to a season since Bobby Ewing came out of a shower undead.
It was a sore one to take so early, and Falkirk perhaps sensed the unease in the stadium and went for the kill, but apart from a speculative Loy shot that whizzed over and a couple of heart stopping moments when crosses evaded everyone, that was all the Bairns really had to offer and gradually Saints began to creep into the match as the first half wore on before equalising around the half hour mark when Stelios Demetriou lashed home a left foot shot after fine work from Gavin Reilly.
After that it was all Saints, and Cammy Smith fired Saints in front soon after the restart following more good work from Reilly, and the former Hearts man capped a fine full debut when he completed the scoring with twenty minutes remaining to give Saints a convincing win that could have been more had the taken even one of the multiple opportunities they created late in the match.
Falkirk on the other hand turned uglier than normal, and lumbering full back Aaron Muirhead, who moved with all the grace of Jabba the Hut trying to climb a set of stairs, was ordered off at 3-1 after smashing Stelios with an elbow. This was followed by the Grangemouth Cannibal, Lee Miller, then spending the last ten minutes deliberately trying to hurt the Saints hero, but my overriding memory of the match will be Mark Kerr, absolutely purple with exhaustion attempting to chase Lewis Morgan whilst desperately sledging the young winger. Imagine anyone with ears that big attempting to slag anyone, but as this was after only twenty minutes, no wonder Saints ran over the top of the Bairns in the last half hour.
After the match, Peter Houston claimed Falkirk should have been 4-0 up after ten minutes, I guess if you are made entirely of Spam logic would be the last thing you would have, but seeing as how we are playing the school playground game of scoring with every half chance you get, he was lucky it never finished 17-5 in Saints favour then.
Suitably pleased with how things turned out, I went home and turned on Radio Scotland only to be met with the whiny in-denial mutterings of the delusional Alex Rae, incredibly still banging on about being sacked by Saints and still making up stats about his mythical win rate in Paisley. At one point he even compared himself favourably to Jack Ross, which is like Ian McCall thinking he could beat Kevin James in a jumping contest, but thankfully Graham Speirs was on hand to repeatedly say “Ok” “right you are” and then one final long awkward “Okaaaaaayyyy”, but Mr Ranjurs himself is not smart enough to sense the tone and expect more ridiculous musings from the life of Alex on a radio near you shortly.
With the Grangemouth mutants suitably tamed, the proper one hundred generation inbreds were up next, a trip to Greenock where the children of Catman awaited.
The last trip to the dark underworld resulted in a routine 4-1 Saints victory, a score much more in line with what we expect against the minnows, but as the sightings of Catman had increased in the weeks leading up to this match along with reports of mutilated rats in pubs, something was clearly stirring down the Clyde.
The week of the match was dominated by a ticket fiasco, as Morton are apparently upgrading their entry system and as the work wasn’t completed there would be no cash sales on match day. It was also reported that Morton are upgrading to electronic turnstiles that accept smart cards, but this would be like putting a sat nav system on a horse so surely this can’t be true. I can only imagine they are fitting a special cat flap for their leader.
In any case Saints fans couldn’t buy tickets from 2pm the day before the match, a full twenty-five hours before kick-off, and a bit like the Celtic Cup match a few months earlier anybody with a late change of circumstances was effectively frozen out of match in a stadium not even half full. Farcical if you ask me and clubs must start doing much better if they are serious about the long-term viability of the game.
Despite the best efforts of everyone to stop Saints fans getting into the stadium, including roadworks on the M8 and a “gala day” in Port Glasgow where locals threw weasels at a cardboard cut-out of Barry Lavety, two thousand Saints fans still made the match.
However, whipped into frenzy by Catman sightings, the locals seemed more agitated than usual and sang their curious blend of Rangers songs and anything anti Paisley/St. Mirren, but we laughed back at the strange blend of “humans” under the cowshed.
Clearly Morton were pumped up, this is after all one of their four cup finals this season, but following a frantic start the match settled down and twice John Sutton should have had Saints in front but incredibly missed with two close range headers. Saints were made to pay the price for these chances when the first Morton penalty was awarded just after the half hour.
The referee for the match was of course Willie Collum, a man who loves a penalty and a red card particularly for the home team, unless your team happens to be playing Celtic as Saints found out in the SPL (for any Morton fans reading that was the top flight) when he inexplicably failed to send off Arthur Boruc and Stephen McManus for clear red card offences on Craig Dargo.
On this occasion, Collum awarded a throw in to Saints on the half way line, and as the Morton “hospitality” members went berserk at him with kipper ties flailing everywhere, he quickly changed his mind and actually put his hand up to apologise to the Morton fans. Extraordinary behaviour in itself, but from the throw in Jai Quitongo sped down the inside right channel with Jack Baird in chase and after shooting straight at Samson collapsed to the floor bringing out a chuckle from the couple of hundred Saints fans in the Main Stand, including myself.
Incredibly, Collum pointed to the spot, and Quitongo decided to laugh in the faces of both Baird and Samson, resulting in bookings for the son of Jose and the Saints keeper who understandably wasn’t too pleased with the minnow’s player.
Baird on the other hand was booked for “bringing down” the undoubtedly talented Quitongo, and from the spot Michael Tidser converted with ease and Saints were now firmly up against it.
Now I have seen such devious behaviour from a Morton player before. Back in the 1990’s, Marko Rajamaki decided to crumple in front of the North Bank claiming that Martin Baker had elbowed him. The referee bought it that day sending the Saints left back off, and Morton went on to win 4-1. It does sound familiar.
The long haired blonde winger smiled at the clearly unhappy Saints fans who had witnessed his gamesmanship, but in a glorious age when fans kept grudges forever this was a mistake from the Finnish player.
Rajamaki would never be allowed to forget this, and practically never touched the ball in the derby again as he was hounded by the Saints support for years. An ex-Morton full back I know, who is also a Saints fan, said at half time during one match Rajamaki was in tears as he couldn’t understand why he was being singled out by Saints supporters. Well, cheer up Rajamaki, it’s because you were a cheat.
Back to 2017, and Saints responded well to this injustice, equalising with a quite ridiculous Cammy Smith twenty-five yarder and the teams went in level at half time, with the Paisley side probably having the better of the chances created. The win was fully expected at this point, but we had forgotten about Morton’s secret weapon, Willie Collum who was covering every blade of the grass for his team.
Early in the second half from an unusually slack Gary MacKenzie clearance, ex Falkirk redneck Billy-Bob McHugh was sent clear on Saints left and after twisting past Jack Baird collided with the big defender and went down, resulting in a second penalty to the children of Catman, and a straight red for Baird.
At the time, I thought it was a penalty, but with the relatively new (over a year old) rules about triple jeopardy, I didn’t expect a straight red card and Collum definitely got this wrong. It should have been a yellow card, but as he got the first one wrong also, he had deprived Saints of a man and ultimately the match as this should have been Baird’s first booking.
Billy-Bob on the other hand was a regular scorer against Saints in his Motherwell and Falkirk days, and as he advances up the mutant ladder he becomes less normal, with his clear celebration at a fellow professional being sent off showing a lack of class suited to his current surroundings.
Tidser again scored the second penalty, and as Saints chased the game Morton showed ruthlessness on the counter attack scoring firstly through Andy Murdoch, and then Billy-Bob himself made Papa Catman a happy feline/human hybrid by scoring the fourth.
I hope the Saints players remember the celebrations, as I certainly do. The minnows lapped it up, quite rightly as we have dominated them for seventy years so they should exploit anything in their favour. I would if I was them, but thankfully I am not.
As I was with my son I waited as the crowds dispersed before leaving, and I should say well done to Stephen McGinn for apologising to the couple of hundred Saints fans remaining at this point, but walking out into the main road from the ground I was confronted by a man with a small child in hand, patiently eyeing every Saints fan that was still exiting the ground.
With a Gazza style haircut, an earring and lack of teeth he would have felt right at home singing those Rangers songs, but he decided it was me he wanted to have a chin wag with.
“That broat youz back doon tae earth, so it did!”, he excitedly splurted out to me.
“We had ten men” I replied, obviously.
“So did we” he barked out looking angry.
“Aye, plus one more” I stated confusingly.
“Whit? Whit you talking aboot?” he replied, his blood pressure clearly increasing.
“Errm, we got a man sent off at one each.” I spelled out to him as carefully as I could.
“Eh……whit………..whit……no ye didnae”. he desperately said looking about for support from fellow Morton fans, who to their credit were avoiding him like the plague.
I went to respond again, but gave up and just started laughing which made the Morton fan utterly irate, and he was as red as Mark Kerr chasing Lewis Morgan. Why not just enjoy your victory?
Mr Angry wasn’t the only one who forgot it was 11 v 10 however. Some Saints fans went into ultra-negative mode, but there is no way Saints would have lost that match if it was 11 v 11 for ninety minutes, and the final 4-1 score was only possible due to Collum and the fact Saints were a man short.
To add to the bizarre things managers have said this season following Gordon Dalzeil and Peter Houston, Jim Duffy said after the match all Saints had was a “wonder goal”. Now I quite like Duffy, other than signing Gary Harkins he seems like a sensible manager (although that signing probably happened as they are the same size of suit) but Duffy was clearly playing up to the Catman choir here.
Going back to Paisley we sat in queues of long traffic exiting Greenock and that “gala day” at Port Glasgow, where a massive Wicker Rat construction had now been erected awaiting “fire from the stick”. I turned on the radio and as Derek Ferguson and Richard Gordon marvelled at the Morton victory, they must have clean forgot that Saints had a man sent off at 1-1, as they failed to mention it on about half a dozen occasions they spoke about that match, but somehow mentioned every other sending off in Scotland. That’s the Alex Rae effect.
Next up for Saints was a Challenge Cup game against East Kilbride, a first opponent for Saints, and we eventually won a match 2-1 that we could easily have lost 1-0 or won 12-0. It was a strange game where I nipped to the toilet just before Saints equalised and missed it, and such was the night big Ross Stewart was having up front that when it was announced he had scored, it actually crossed my mind that the keeper Ross Stewart had come up for a corner and grabbed a late equaliser. Anyway, a late victory and a tie against Hearts Colts is in wait, much more of next month.
The following Saturday Saints travelled to Livingston, a place we have a 100% win record in the league, and curiously enough a record still intact when it is stretched back to Meadowbank Thistle days.
The first shock of the day was the Saints line up, where he had more full backs playing than David Hopkins has real teeth, and only one recognised centre back. It was later confirmed that with Jack Baird suspended, big Gary MacKenzie has joined Harry Davis in the treatment room leaving Gregor Buchanan as the only fit centre half, forcing Irvine and Eckersely to form a makeshift back three with new signing Liam Smith and Stelios playing further forward in a midfield four.
For the second weekend in a row Saints had a “demoted” ref from the Premiership in Craig Thompson, and again another referee who incredibly doesn’t know a new rule, this time when a player should and shouldn’t leave the field for treatment as he ordered Stelios from the field after a Livingston player was booked.
Despite this, we still won. All week I had been telling anyone that would listen that we couldn’t lose the first goal again or indeed go behind, and was therefore delighted when a driving Stephen McGinn run and shot resulted in Saints taking the lead early on, but Livingston soon equalised from a corner kick, and the game turned in favour of the home side when Gary Irvine was ordered off with ten minutes still to play in the first half, leaving Saints once again to play with ten men.
Crucially though, the game was level at the time and Saints didn’t need to chase it like the previous Saturday in ‘The Upside Down’. Gavin Reilly once again was the hero for Saints by netting two fine poachers goals to win the match for Saints 3-1, to complete an absolutely outstanding ninety minutes. I can’t remember too many times in the past Saints playing with ten men and actually improving on the score after they lost a man, so this was very sweet.
Stupidly I turned on the radio, and as Richard Gordon went through the results in the Championship he hinted at the disastrous result for Livingston with their first defeat in eighteen matches, and once again absolutely no mention that Saints went down to ten men and how great a result it was for us. Maybe I keep turning it on the wrong point, but there is no doubt Dicky Gordon would be remembering these sending offs if it was Aberdeen.
However, nothing can take away from the performance, and my doubts about Gavin Reilly before the season started were already proving what lots of people tell me on twitter, and that’s that I know very little.
The final match in August was at home to Dundee United, who at the time had a 100% win record in the league. After the success of the previous victory, Jack Ross stuck with his three at the back formation, and with Smith, Reilly and Morgan in attack it was potentially an explosive line up and formation, as it proved.
We have been treated to some utterly brilliant home performances since the January transfer window shut, and this was up there any of them. The match of course finished 3-0 to Saints, but it should have been several more as the Tannadice side simply couldn’t live with our pace and firepower. As an added bonus, the United twitter trolls were nowhere to be seen in the aftermath, a bit like their clubs defence.
The best United had was Paul McMullan, a winger that enjoys eating grass and to try and keep up with professional divers Miles Hypollite and Jai Quitongo in the division, attempted his own outrageous piece of theatrics in the first half, but only found the referees book much to the delight of the Saints support. Perhaps we are being tough on the ex-Saints bench warmer though, and it may be the weight of his massive skull pulling his tiny body to the ground on a constant basis that makes him fall over easily.
However, the day belonged to Saints and in particular a quite incredible solo performance from Lewis Morgan who scored twice and set up the other for an improving by the week Ian McShane, but the young winger is now playing at a level far beyond this division and probably even this country and we should sit back and enjoy what will undoubtedly be his last season at the club as it is going to be something a little bit special.
The other very noticeable thing from this match was once again the atmosphere at the ground, and at points during the game all three stands with Saints fans in it were singing along as the team pounded the Tannadice club, and similar to the Falkirk match and games at the end of last season, the stadium is finally beginning to feel comfortable and a bit like home.
Winning football matches is of course absolutely crucial to this as these provide happy memories, which up until the last six months had been as scarce as attacking football from Dumbarton, but the concerted effort from the fans with the drum has undoubtedly been a catalyst for this also.
However, I am not so sure about the size of these crowds at the stadium. Against Falkirk and Dundee United the official attendance was given as just under 5,000 on each occasion, meaning there was over 3,000 empty seats inside the stadium…………sorry just not having that!
I’ve genuinely no idea how they calculate the crowd at St Mirren Park, do they leave out free tickets including under twelve season books in the family stand? Is hospitality counted? Or am I just wildly overestimating what I thought looked like an extra 1000 or so people in the ground?
It would be nice to get confirmation on this, but if there was under 5,000 people in the stadium against Dundee United then quite frankly Jim Gardiner is a better winger than Lewis Morgan………