AS INVERNESS well know, all good things must come to an end, usually against St Johnstone.
Around this time two years ago, their remarkable unbeaten away run, which encompassed all of 2010, came a cropper at McDiarmid Park. Yesterday, their record of scoring in every match this season ground to a halt at the Perth stadium.
In fact, it was the first time since 2 May, some 27 games ago, that Inverness have failed to find the net. They gave it their usual best shot here, but it wasn’t to be, thanks mainly to Alan Mannus, the St Johnstone goalkeeper, who twice came out on top when an opponent was clean through. His opposite number, Antonio Reguero, also played well in a game that was better than the scoreline suggests.
All in all, it was a change of fortune for Terry Butcher, the Inverness manager, whose team missed a chance to go within four points of leaders Celtic, but this is no time to criticise an Inverness team who are still second in the SPL, with just one defeat in 20 outings. Who would have believed that at the start of the season?
“I’ll have to get them back for extra finishing,” joked Butcher afterwards. “That Billy McKay, he’s going through a really barren spell at the moment. Two games without a goal.
“It’s a good point for us really. After 26 matches, only two teams have beaten us. The fact is that we are second top of the table at the end of 2012. If you had said in July that this was going to happen, you’d have said ‘no chance’. This is all beyond our wildest dreams.”
Butcher was pleased that another side to his players had emerged. Against a St Johnstone team who made it hard for them and created some decent chances of their own, the Highlanders had to dig deep. Without the injured Josh Meekings, Butcher was heartened by the performance of 18-year-old Matthew Cooper in central defence.
Steve Lomas, the St Johnstone manager, whose team have had only one other clean sheet in the league this season, admitted that it was something of an anti-climax, and certainly not the goalfest many had expected. The shrill boos of a sparse crowd greeted the final whistle.
They do their best to boost the attendances at St Johnstone, they really do, but the punters are not so easily attracted. An adult and two children can watch from behind the goal for a combined cost of £15 at McDiarmid Park, but it has had little impact on the average turnout. Just 2,975 interrupted their festivities for this one. Although there were no goals, both teams were quick and eager in the final third. Liam Craig, wanted by Hibernian, was responsible for the home side’s best efforts, repeatedly causing trouble from dead-ball situations. A free kick of his, straight at the goalkeeper, was punched away. Then his corner gave Gregory Tade a free header in the six-yard area, but the striker contrived to miss it completely. David McCracken fared better with another of Craig’s crosses, but his header was cleared from the line by Owain Tudor-Jones.
Inverness were more effective in open play. McKay has grabbed all the attention for his recent scoring exploits, but there is more to his game. Apart from pestering defenders at every opportunity, he knows how to set up his team-mates, as he did Andrew Shinnie in the opening stages. When the Scotland international surged into the penalty area, he could easily have gone down under a stray leg, but chose instead to stay on his feet. A poked shot off the goalkeeper suggested that honesty had cost him. With his back to goal, McKay also set up Aaron Doran with a neat flick, but the recipient’s shot was pushed away by Mannus. The St Johnstone goalkeeper had to be just as alert when a fierce shot by Shinnie threatened to catch him napping.
Early in the second half, Lomas replaced Steve MacLean with Rowan Vine, who gave the home side another dimension. He seemed to be full of ideas, most notably a run and angled pass that set up Tade, but Reguero was off his line quickly to block. In an untidier advance, Tade barrelled his way through a couple of defenders, only to be denied by the goalkeeper, triggering a scramble in which Dave Mackay was thwarted and Murray Davidson headed wide.
Inverness, though, continued to be dangerous. When big Ross Draper bulldozed his way through the middle of the St Johnstone defence, aided by a subtle one-two just outside the penalty area, only his control at the crucial moment let him down. A heavy touch allowed Mannus to narrow the angle.