The durability of St Johnstone remains one of the marvels of the Scottish Premiership, as is true of last night’s matchwinner, Steven MacLean.
The 34-year-old striker’s top-class finish after 40 minutes ensured that Tommy Wright’s men have now opened up a 10-point gap on fifth-placed Motherwell and it now seems assured that they will spend the rest of the season pushing for European football.
They were largely outplayed by Partick Thistle last night, and practically didn’t threaten apart from their goal, yet they did enough to secure a second win on the road inside a week – having come close to taking a point at Celtic Park a week ago.
The evening was exasperating for Alan Archibald’s men, then, and the manifestation of that came in Christie Elliott receiving a straight red card from referee Crawford Allan for kicking out as the visitors sought to kill time with a short corner.
With ambitions to cash in seventh place for sixth, Archibald spoke beforehand of the need to stay on opponents St Johnstone’s “coat tails”. In reality, though, during the opening period the only coat-tails being tugged were those of the busy, buzzing forward players of the Maryhill side as they went at the defence of an unusually passive St Johnstone.
Clear opportunities weren’t exactly numerous, it must be said. But, with Ryan Edwards finding pockets of space and driving into them, chances always looked as if they would come along if Partick persevered. They did, and the openings duly arrived. And, as can be the Thistle way when they produce bright and breezy football, goals did not follow.
St Johnstone keeper Zander Clark had as much to do with that fact as a missing ruthless streak. Although even the Perth club’s manager, while recognising the defensive solidity that sent the Firhill club into last night’s game on the back of four straight clean sheets, was forced to note Thistle weren’t winning as many games as his opposite number would have liked.
For half an hour, Archibald’s team played entirely in their opponents’ defensive third. In the 22nd minute those efforts looked as if they would pay off when Steven Lawless made space for himself 22 yards out and sent in a ripping effort that seemed to wrong-foot Clark, only for him to shift his weight and beat the ball away. The keeper only knocked it towards Edwards, though, but the Australian, with a corner to aim at, produced a weak header to send the ball into the side netting.
Six minutes later, Clark again proved wall-like to produce another superb block from on-loan Reading defender Niall Keown. The youngster’s blooter of a shot would have had one observer in the main stand leaping from his feet, no doubt, with former Arsenal stalwart and now pundit Martin Keown at Firhill last night to watch his son.
He, along with the 2,000 home spectators would have been left groaning by the desperately slack defending that allowed St Johnstone to score with their first meaningful attack. What Callum Booth was thinking about when he left a headed back pass woefully short was anyone’s guess, but Steven MacLean judged the trajectory to acrobatically whip in an unstoppable shot.
His pose at the moment of his precision finish from six yards was balletic and the striker remains one of the league’s most technically gifted front men. His goal last night was the 10th of the season. He is worth a host of points to St Johnstone in any given season and is a crucial reason that St Johnstone continually finish in the top six. And, by extension, the absence of any frontman of similar calibre is why Thistle – who lost their way and heart in a second period they rarely threatened to produce a goal in – find the top half of the table a foreign land.