September started with a home Challenge Cup tie against one of the giants of the reserve/under 21 scene, the mighty Hearts Colts. There isn’t much of a debate anymore about the introduction of these Colt sides into the Challenge Cup; the vast majority of fans think it’s annoying, unnecessary and devalues the tournament. To put it bluntly these reserve sides are about as welcome as Greenock celebrity Catman at a “rats have rights” meeting.
In fact, the only person in the whole of Scotland that seems to think it is a good idea to have Colt sides in a national cup competition is overpaid Star Trek fanatic and general man-child Neil Doncaster, who just happens to be CEO of the SPFL.
Doncaster, with his 1997 schoolboy haircut, is the man who publically devalued the game in Scotland by saying it would die unless the new Rangers were propelled into the top-tier of the league set up without actually going through the democratically agreed process for a new club submission. His selfish actions and words have had lasting implications for the game in Scotland as we struggle to attract decent investment, and how he remains in place is as big a mystery as Willie Collum being a FIFA appointed referee.
Doncaster’s lazy stewardship of the Scottish League game has seen an almost word for word copy of the English league format, including the utterly nonsensical rebranding of the old First Division to the Championship (it works in England as the Premier League is a separate entity from the Football League unlike Scotland) therefore it was no surprise when the SPFL copied the EFL’s decision to allow Colt teams into their Irn Bru Cup equivalent, which I believe is called the Rumbellows Paint Challenge Trophy.
If like me you are cynical about the motives behind this Colts move, then you may agree that Doncaster’s dream is not to enhance the progress of the young players as he claims, but to have a final between Celtic and Rangers Colts played at a wrecked Firhill, and he is able to sell the media rights to some of the most obscure TV stations on the planet for £100 a pop.
None of this seems right, but nonetheless Saints had to play a first team fixture against what is essentially a Hearts reserve side, charge the support £10 to do so due to SPFL rules on minimum pricing and also not drop too many first team players to avoid a fine.
All of it is utterly bonkers, and not surprisingly Saints players found it hard to motivate themselves for the match, but a rather muted performance played in first gear throughout still was enough to see Saints win easily 3-1, and nobody learned anything other than James Fowler can shout very loudly at Adam Eckersley and Hearts have a 6ft 6inch midfielder who is so bad it has Craig Levein’s finger prints all over it.
Next up for Saints was another home match, this time against Highland League Frankenstein mash-up Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who of course were relegated from the Premiership at the end of last season and are currently suffering from a Saints style reintroduction to the second tier by being generally awful with a manager that looks well out his depth.
In charge of the Highlanders nowadays is of course highly pitched oompa loompa John Robertson, who in the past has been less than complimentary about Saints in the media undoubtedly due to his 1986 conspiracy theory about Hearts/Dundee/Celtic/St. Mirren.
It used to be common practice on Radio Scotland to have Robertson and another high-pitched Hearts fan Alan Preston be utterly scathing about Saints, but it is hard to take either seriously when they both sound like they have been inhaling helium balloons between sentences.
Speaking an octave higher than the rest of the population is of course an unfortunate geographical quirk of being born and raised in Edinburgh, and although not something that is exclusive to Scotland as there are examples of this in Ireland and the USA also, I would however guess that the capital city is the only place on the planet where the women have deeper voices than the men.
Keeping with the ‘bitter wee man’ theme, on the morning of the match a newspaper interview surfaced where Billy Davies had claimed he was too good to work at “…..a St. Mirren, Hearts, or Dundee United”, all laughable stuff of course as Davies actually applied for at least one job at those clubs, but seeing Davies in the flesh collect his complimentary ticket and stroll through the main stand doors at Greenhill Road to watch Saints play only hours after publically disrespecting the club says a lot about him and also about us as we allowed him to do so. I know which one of the two has class, and we have never had an alleged gang bang in a Manchester club with a socialist politician either to my knowledge.
Back to the match, and with Robertson giddily squealing like an excited school girl on the side-lines, Inverness actually started the game well and were only denied an early opener by the linesman’s flag, however Saints took the lead when Lewis Morgan continued his magnificent season so far by squeezing the ball home under former Saints keeper Mark Ridgers who appeared as comfortable in-goal as Robertson at a Louis Armstrong impression contest.
The second half of the match was an absolute epic game of football, and the Inverness equaliser by John Baird just after half time let out a scream so high from Robertson that every dug in Feegie barked for a few minutes in the confusion. Parity didn’t last long however, and Gregor Buchanan/Gavin Reilly poked Saints in front following more calamitous keeping from agent Ridgers, who requires multiple Pictish lessons from Jamie Langfield asap. (Please see 2016/17 season review)
The Feegie dugs had hardly stopped barking from the opening Inverness goal when the Highlanders equalised again, and once more the local canines confusingly howled at the bizarre noise coming from the away dugout after Liam Polworth ran through the heart of Saints defence with the ease of Alex Rae logging into the Follow Follow website.
Thankfully for Fido & Co, that was the end of the Inverness goals, and within a few minutes it was 4-2 Saints thanks to long range efforts from Cammy Smith and Ian McShane, and a comfortable in the end victory for Saints despite Willie Collum’s appalling handling of the match where he even hastily “ushered” Stelios off the park when he was being subbed.
And then the real fun began, when John Robertson was interviewed post-match. Inexplicably, the Inverness boss believed that had his side taken an early chance that came their way this would have put them 2-0 up, as he believes their goals count as double.
The logic behind this ludicrous claim was based on that early disallowed goal his side had, although it was a correctly ruled out he conceded, but none the less that should have been 1-0 according to the human kazoo, and had Inverness taken that next one, “2-0 and game over” the Inverness boss stated matter of fact.
This is logic that the manager made entirely out of Spam, Peter Houston, wouldn’t even dream to follow, but Robertson then said “……look at St. Mirren. Top of the league, but we are better and we proved that today”. You sure did Robbo, by getting thumped 4-2.
One thing Robertson did get right was Saints being top of the league, and with second placed Dunfermline up next who had flung away a 2-0 lead at Cappielow as Saints were beating Inverness, it was an intriguing match that waited in Fife.
However, similar to the Morton match away earlier in the season, news began to come out that the Fifers were introducing a new smart ticket system for this match, and alarm bells immediately began to ring for me.
Unlike the Morton game where fans couldn’t buy a ticket for the 25 hours immediately leading up to the match, no tickets were available to purchase beforehand for Saints fans, and they had to therefore buy one from a ticket booth at East End Park and then enter the ground, similar to how Saints operate.
What Saints do however is have more than one person selling tickets and more than one turnstile open, and of course the key to it all, have the smart card software working. Stories of fans arriving at East End Park at 2.20 and not getting into the ground for kick off were common place, and as 3pm approached it was estimated some 800 Saints fans were still standing in queues waiting to get in.
Like Morton, Dunfermline are not long out of the third tier, and this amateur approach to match preparation is simply not good enough. The Fife weirdos have since hinted at Saints being the cause for this farce as we apparently estimated a traveling support of only 600 and not the 1400 that was eventually admitted, however even if that is true and we somehow underestimated our own support by over 100%, then at 2.30pm when it was obvious 600 was completely wrong Dunfermline should have reacted.
Instead the Fifers carried on with Plan A, with absolutely no contingency in place which is frankly absolutely disgraceful. This Danny Lennon approach to match preparation is bad enough, but to make matters worse stewards started blaming Saints fans for the mess, which is so typical of football clubs attitude towards fans it is almost a default response. Some clubs should have a sign up saying:
“Give us your money you utter scumbags, and if you need to watch the match instead of just donating there is a seat over there somewhere.”
On the park Saints weren’t much better than Dunfermline’s match preparation, and the 3-0 defeat come full-time was well deserved and made worse by two late sending offs when Buchanan and Eckersely saw red after some petulant actions from our own players as well as over officious refereeing from Craig Thompson.
These two late red cards when the game was well over made it four sending offs in three away league matches for Saints, and three goal defeats in two of these games. To put that into perspective, last season during our worse campaign in living memory and arguably ever, our biggest defeat was 3-0 at home to Queen of the South, and that was the only time in the entire league season we lost by more than two goals. We obviously have injury issues in defence currently, but as I am sure Jack Ross is serious about winning the league, I think he knows we must start to do better away from home.
With suspensions and injuries leaving us shorter at the back than a Jim Duffy haircut, Saints moved to bring in Jamie McCart from Celtic on an “emergency” loan, whilst sending out young Darren Whyte to Forfar on a similar emergency deal.
McCart was in place for our next home match against Queen of the South, a game moved to Sunday at 4.10pm for BBC Alba coverage where any home club unlucky enough to be selected for these matches loses money, yet another legacy of Neil Doncaster’s leadership of the game in Scotland.
The bizarre kick off time meant a difference of around 1000 Saints fans, and with no direct compensation for the home side in televised Alba matches, this meant an estimated loss of between £15-20k for Saints in this particular match, proving Doncaster is about as effective a negotiator as he is potential candidate for hair modelling.
It is a shame for BBC Alba that these figures are repeatedly brought up as it is not their fault Doncaster accepted this deal, and also they cover the game in Scotland with thought and care that Sky Sports could only dream of, and their half time features are usually the best you will find anywhere about the game in this country.
To the match itself and despite the potential defensive difficulties, Saints were 3-0 up just after half-time, with Lewis Morgan once more in sensational form and adding another two goals to his season tally, now at an outstanding eight from the winger.
With national media attention inevitably shifting to the youngster, a below average but rich English club is sure to bid absolute buttons for the winger in the near future, but it looks as though young Lewis has some proper principles and despite his ambition to test himself at a higher level he wants the club to be suitably compensated for developing him.
Perhaps a glance at his good pal Stevie Mallan rotting away in the harsh foggy backwater of Barnsley reserves will make Morgan think even more carefully about his next move, mainly as the two players are similar physically and the English game below the Premier League is packed full of tall, physical players with nowhere near Mallan or Morgan’s technical ability, meaning brute strength is the number one attribute in the English seaside leagues.
Back to the match, and despite Queens scoring a late consolation goal, a 3-1 win was a good days work considering the increasingly dire injury and suspension mini crisis we are suffering, not helped when Josh Todd dislocated his shoulder again, meaning he is out for 12 weeks. Todd had forced his way back into the squad after popping his shoulder out early in pre-season, and the attacking midfielder is surely due better luck in the future.
So after seven league matches, Saints remained second in the division a point off leaders Dunfermline and a point ahead of Dundee United in third, with these two clubs meeting one another in the next fixture as bottom of the table Brechin City visited Paisley, where Saints had now won seven in a row at home in all competitions.
Historically, these are the sort of matches Saints struggle with and once again this proved to be the case. Brechin were as expected well organised and made it tough for Saints, but in general we were lethargic and poor. In the first half in particular I felt we were also complacent, and despite making a relatively early breakthrough when Cammy Smith knocked a wonderful McGinn pass beyond Smith in the Brechin goal, at no point during the rest of the match did I think we would add to this goal.
Brechin knocked the ball about very well, proving that Dumbarton’s diabolical approach to football in general is not necessary to be competitive at this level if you are a part-time club, and it was no surprise when ex-Saints youngster Calvin Orsi headed Brechin level before half-time.
As the second half progressed, it looked more and more likely that a draw would be the outcome, but Jack Ross gambled somewhat by throwing on Sutton, Stewart and Hilson to add to attackers Cammy Smith and Morgan who were still on the field.
Inspired by a breathless all action performance by Cammy Smith who was by a distance the best in black and white, Saints forced a half chance when Ross Stewart tuned a poor first touch into a hooked cross that evaded Sutton and the Brechin defence allowing Hilson to scramble a late winner at the back post for his first ever Saints goal.
It was massive relief and probably undeserved on the balance of play, but personally I was absolutely delighted that we picked up three points when playing nowhere near our best and with a growing injury list.
Whoever wins this league this will not play well every week, and will need to grind out results on many occasions throughout a long campaign. Also, other teams will simply not turn up in Paisley to be routinely thrashed by Saints and will try to stop us as Brechin proved and we need to deal with this.
However, with eight home wins in a row in all competitions at home, this overtook the seven we managed in the 1993/94 when Saints were at what I call “peak Norrie” and Captain Norrie McWhirter was in absolutely outstanding form before being injured in the penultimate match of that unbeaten run, and equalled the run achieved in season 1967/68 under Alex Wright when Saints won the second tier and scored 100 goals in the process.
The next target is to now equal the nine in a row managed by Alex Ferguson’s swashbuckling young side in 1976/77 which stands alone as the best post war run of form at home, and another side that won the second tier.
With only two home matches in October, the first a Challenge Cup match against Raith Rovers where Jack Ross has already hinted at changes to give players a rest, and the second late in the month against the Catmen of Cappielow, it is bound to be another significant period where records could be broken.
However, it is perhaps our away form that will tell us if we are heading towards a sustained title challenge or not this season with tough matches at bogey side Dumbarton and Falkirk to come in October, and keeping eleven men on the park is fundamental to any success we will have on the road.