THIS was a tale of two clubs, one that continues to over-achieve and one that keeps on under-performing. Even with their manager consigned to a hospital bed, St Johnstone were good enough to beat Hibs and secure their third successive top six finish.
They have done it on a fraction of the budget enjoyed by their guests and less than half their average home gates and the way in which they still manage to squeeze the very best out of each season should be a source of jealousy within Easter Road.
Tommy Wright is the latest St Johnstone manager to have surpassed expectations. Even from his hospital bed, where he is recuperating from gall bladder surgery, he had faith in his squad to deliver. He left them in the capable hands of Callum Davidson and, although they weren’t at their best, his players still delivered.
Hibs had the best of the early possession but with their first real attack of the game, the home side opened the scoring. When the corner came in from David Wotherspoon, Steven MacLean capitalised on some poor defending and some sloppy goalkeeping to slam the ball home from close range.
It gave St Johnstone something to build on and they could have been three up by half-time had it not been for MacLean’s profligacy and stand-in goalkeeper Sean Murdoch’s agility.
The Hibs second-choice ’keeper was given a starting berth after Ben Williams’s wife went into labour on the morning of the game, but while Murdoch must accept his share of the blame for the first goal, he saved his side from a far more humiliating scoreline.
After Stevie May and Wotherspoon had combined to give MacLean a second opening, he skied it over the bar from about three yards out but Wotherspoon was unfortunate not to find the net later in the half when Murdoch pulled off a brilliant save from point-blank range. The ’keeper rescued his team-mates yet again in the 51st minute keeping out a May header.
He was unable to do anything about the second goal, though, which was crafted from Michael O’Halloran’s drive down the right. Having made it to the byeline, the midfielder cut it back across goal and it bounced off Hibs defender Ryan McGivern and beyond the helpless Murdoch.
While Wright will have been delighted to hear the radio coverage, and keen to get back to the training ground as soon as possible to ensure his men maintain the momentum heading into their second cup semi-final of the season, for Terry Butcher the end of this season surely cannot come soon enough.
With his side’s slender hopes of a top-six finish extinguished, on recent evidence, the final games of this campaign will offer him little but torture. The time has long since expired for players seeking to impress and win a major role in the rebuilding job he will have to undertake ahead of next season and the suspicion is few will make the cut.
He has changed his mind about one or two since his arrival, with Tom Taiwo first to work his way back into his plans and, yesterday, Kevin Thomson was given a start, having not featured in the team since December.
But even with six changes, the reshuffled pack was unable to impress.
In the second half Murdoch was again left exposed and forced to deny May and Gary McDonald to keep the scoreline respectable, the visitors’ cause hampered further by the dismissal of Danny Haynes, just after the second goal, in the 55th minute.
The damage had already been done prior to his stamp on Wotherspoon but going down to ten men did not enhance the chances of them getting back into the match and arresting an embarrassing run which now features just one win in 12.
No wonder Thomson expressed his disgust at his team-mate, no wonder Butcher turned his back on the striker as he made his way to the tunnel and then refused to excuse him afterwards.
Too many Hibs players have let Butcher down this season and very few will be given the opportunity to do that again next term.
But for Wright the diagnosis is far brighter. He has a team that have given him more than he could have realistically asked for this season and they are not finished yet.