STEVEN MacLean removed his shirt, swirled it above his head and sprinted to the corner flag in a manner reminiscent of his celebration in the Scottish Cup final.
His late winner at McDiarmid Park yesterday wasn’t nearly as meaningful as his history-making goal three months ago but, when you almost single-handedly carry your team’s striking hopes, the relief is understandable.
Stevie May has gone – as Aberdeen supporters frequently reminded their Perth counterparts – together with Nigel Hasselbaink, which has left MacLean to shoulder the burden for St Johnstone as Adam Morgan settles in and Chris Kane matures. He did it well here with a performance that was about much more than the right-foot shot that finally broke the deadlock with ten minutes left.
In a match that St Johnstone deserved to win, he hit the post in the first half, and repeatedly brought others into play by holding the ball up and laying it off.
“Stevie’s excellent on and off the pitch,” said St Johnstone boss Tommy Wright. “He’s a big personality and his play is exemplary. He links it up well. By his own admission, he probably doesn’t get enough goals, but that’s down to the amount of unselfish work he does outside the box. Sometimes he might not be in the positions that he should be, but I’m delighted to have him because he’s a leader on and off the pitch.”
St Johnstone dominated the first half hour, making it awkward for their opponents by pressing high up the pitch. When a panicky Jonny Hayes passed straight to MacLean, the striker quickly bore down on goal. With only the goalkeeper to beat, he took aim and glanced his shot off the outside of the post.
When, with his back to the goal, MacLean was fouled just outside the box, Jamie Langfield spilled his free kick and Gary McDonald somehow failed to score with the rebound.
The fear for St Johnstone was that they would rue their missed chances. Eventually, Hayes was given Aberdeen’s first sight of goal, but he made a hash of it from 20 yards. He and Adam Rooney would also curl shots over the bar before half-time, but it was Andy Considine who almost gave the visitors an interval lead they didn’t deserve. When Shay Logan sidefooted a cross into the box, the Aberdeen defender crashed his header against the crossbar.
The second half was a slow-burner by comparison. Both teams appeared to have sussed each other out until legs tired and the game began to stretch, a development from which Niall McGinn looked the most likely to profit. First he fresh-aired a clear chance when Hayes disguised his low cutback from a free kick wide on the right. Then he sneaked in behind three defenders, only to get under the ball with his header.
That, though, prompted a response from St Johnstone who had introduced Michael O’Halloran and their new signing, Simon Lappin. Dave Mackay failed with a free header when he had time to take the ball down, and there were a couple of shouts for handball in the box, but they didn’t need them. With time running out, MacLean found space in the box. St Johnstone took an age to recognise as much, but eventually, O’Halloran picked him out and, from 12 yards, the striker swept it past Jamie Langfield. He was booked for the celebration.
Aberdeen desperately sought to restore parity, but the cutting edge that had eluded them all afternoon continued to elude them.
When Tam Scobbie fluffed a clearance for the home side, David Goodwillie had a chance to equalise, but Alan Mannus pulled off his only save of the game by blocking with his chest.
“St Johnstone are a side who always make life difficult,” said Derek McInnes, the Aberdeen manager. “They have good experience, good aggression and organisation. You get tight games against them so you are looking for that bit of quality and we didn’t have enough of that today.”