A CASE of normal service resumed at Fir Park. If their trouncing at the hands of Dundee United in their last outing was an aberration, this victory was a return not only to the sort of impressive consistency that has become almost a trademark for Motherwell in recent seasons, but also in the process put them on the cusp of yet another top-three finish and European football for the sixth time in seven seasons.
Motherwell 2 - 1 St Johnstone
Scorers: Motherwell; Ainsworth 20; McManus 35, St Johnstone: MacKay 27
Quite remarkable stuff for Stuart McCall and his men who probably did enough with a zestful first-half display to claim they deserved all three points on this occasion, but they had to dig deep as St Johnstone made to decent attempt after the interval to try to preserve their recent unbeaten run as their first Scottish Cup final appearance looms ever closer.
In the end, a goal for Stephen McManus that might not have been given if referee Kevin Clancy had followed his initial instincts and awarded a penalty instead for hand ball by Saints’ Steven Anderson proved to be all that separated the two sides. Not that McCall was overly concerned as to how it had been achieved. “When you get to this stage of the season, it’s all about winning,” he reflected. “I thought in the first half we were very good, then in the second they had a lot of possession but we defended really well when we needed to.
“When the split fixtures came out I said if we were to have any chance of finishing second we would have to win our last three games – and nothing’s changed.”
What did change was the manner in which his side opened this match in comparison with their Tannadice nightmare. They fairly sprung from the traps yesterday, pressing down either flank while James McFadden and John Sutton circled like vultures around the visitors’ penalty box, eager to pounce.
It took a moment of real class from Lionel Ainsworth to eventually force the merited breakthrough for Motherwell, however, with the winger completely outfoxing Alan Mannus in the Saints’ goal with a precision chip from an acute angle that looped into the far corner of the net.
With the visitors very much on the back foot and struggling to bring Steven MacLean and Stevie May into the game, it looked as though this could turn out to be another one-sided contest to mirror the 4-0 victory Motherwell racked up on Saints last visit to Fir Park. However, the Perth men pounced in clinical fashion from a set-piece just seven minutes later. David Wotherspoon’s corner was met with a forceful downward header by Dave MacKay which beat the combined efforts of Lee Hollis and his defensive colleagues to keep it out. If that was somewhat against the run of play the events whereby the Fir Park side regained the lead before half-time can only be described as shrouded in some controversy.
Iain Vigurs’ well directed free-kick was met by McManus with much the same power as MacKay had used to knock in the equaliser. As the ball bounced goalwards Anderson clearly used a hand to keep it out of the net. The immediate reaction from the stands was to call for a penalty for the hosts and due punishment for Anderson.
However, after consulting his assistant referee, Clancy ruled the ball had already crossed the line before the Saints defender had intervened – which saved him from what would have been a straight red for deliberate handball.
If the Perth side had underperformed by their own recent high standards in a stuttering opening 45 minutes, they deserved credit for making a real game of it after the break. Wright tweaked his formation, pushing May out to the left flank and allowing Wotherspoon to run more centrally whilst collectively his side adopted a far greater sense of urgency.
Motherwell, by contrast, were forced back in numbers and even then it took a commendable display by Shaun Hutchison at the heart of their defence to preserve their advantage. St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright insisted he and his men felt a sense of grievance that a foul hadn’t been given in the build-up to Motherwell’s second goal but accepted his side “didn’t do enough in the first half and didn’t make the most of their opportunities in the second”. However, he added that he would “take the positives from their response after half time”.
Saints certainly probed and pressed, with May setting up Wotherspoon who sent a fierce shot just wide and the home fans’ hearts were in their mouths as a patient passing movement created space for substitute Gary McDonald to put in a low drive which had Hollis at full stretch as the seconds elapsed down to full time.
BT Sport Q&A: Rangers | Hibs | Neil Lennon
THIS week’s BT Sport video Q&A looks at whether Rangers fans will buy season tickets and if the club’s supporters will force a change of ownership.
The form of Hibs under Terry Butcher is also examined following the Easter Road side’s derby defeat while the future of Neil Lennon is also considered following the announcement that his assistant Johan Mjallby is to depart at the end of the season.
• Email your Scottish football question for the BT Sport panel to answer. The next show will be recorded on May 7 after St Johnstone v Celtic, which will also be shown live on BT Sport, with the video available on The Scotsman website the following day. You can also tweet us @TheScotsman.
A line-up of experts will handle your questions after each BT Sport game. Most match days, the team includes Darrell Currie, Derek Rae and Gary McAllister.
Over this season, BT Sport will air 30 SPFL matches plus 10 Rangers games from the SPFL League One.
• T&C We can not guarantee which presenters will answer your questions. Questions are vetted and no correspondence will be entered into.