STEVIE May? Billy McKay? A goalfest surely? Well, not exactly. Gary Warren was the only scorer at McDiarmid Park yesterday during a Scottish Premiership match in which neither St Johnstone nor their Highland visitors set the pulses racing.
SCORERS: Warren 42
The Perth side were frustrated to emerge with nothing, especially after Nigel Hasselbaink missed an open goal early in the second half, but really, they could have no complaints after failing to trouble their well-organised opponents.
Inverness, ahead through Warren’s first-half header, were not exactly running riot, but they were comfortable here, thanks mainly to Warren and Josh Meekings, who kept their opponents at arm’s length for most of the afternoon.
For all their goalscoring potential, Inverness are gradually being recognised for their qualities at the back.
John Hughes, their manager, said that his players, who have the second-best defensive record in Scotland’s top flight, were quite content for their opponents to have the ball. “In the second half, there was plenty rearguard defending,” said Hughes, “but when you have guys like Meekings and Warren going to head it, [Ross] Draper screening and your goalie coming to catch, [the balls] needs to go in with quality and I don’t think there was enough quality going in there for us to lose a goal.”
The League Cup finalists also look to be in a healthy league position, level with fourth-placed Dundee United, and just seven points behind second-placed Aberdeen, with two games in hand. ]“We don’t want to be sitting back on our laurels because we are in a cup final,” said Hughes. “That league campaign is your bread and butter. That’s what you get judged on.”
Inverness might have been two up inside the first seven minutes. When Greg Tansey’s long ball sneaked behind a sleeping St Johnstone defence, Warren stooped to direct a header wide.
St Johnstone were slow to settle, but when they did, Hasselbaink was their biggest threat. After collecting a pass by Chris Millar, he turned his marker beautifully and curled a low shot that Dean Brill palmed round the post. He had a better chance after May’s reverse pass, but his shot came back off the goalkeeper.
It was a feisty affair in which tempers occasionally flared. Watkins and David Wotherspoon were both booked after an off-the-ball clash, as was Millar for two late lunges in the space of a minute.
Not that the ugliest moment was anyone’s fault. Frazer Wright was stretchered off with an ankle injury sustained in a clash with Warren.
In the time it took Tam Scobbie, Wright’s replacement, to settle in central defence, the visitors enjoyed their best period. Alan Mannus was out quickly to block McKay, after Watkins had set him up, but the save served only to delay the breakthrough. When David Raven’s cross was only half-cleared, Richie Foran returned it into the mix, where Warren converted with a header. St Johnstone dominated possession throughout the second half, but conspicuously failed to do anything with it. On the one occasion that they did fashion a proper chance, it was spectacularly squandered.
Hasselbaink was the culprit, not long after the interval. When Brill pushed out Wotherspoon’s shot, the little St Johnstone forward had an empty net in front of him, but he somehow directed his header wide.
Frustrated time and again by Warren and Meekings, the Perth side gradually ran out of ideas. May’s long-range shot was briefly fumbled by Brill, Hasselbaink blasted over, and eventually, they resorted to seeking out Chris Iwelumo, but nothing stuck to the target man.
In fact, it was Inverness who nearly grabbed the game’s second goal with their one and only effort of the second half. When Foran had a cut at a bouncing ball, his shot careered into the sidenet.