THE great race for Europe lurched into its final, fraught stages at McDiarmid Park yesterday with a messy encounter that was dominated by a hotly-contested sending-off after just 12 minutes.
Scorers: St Johnstone - MacLean (77)
Bookings: St Johnstone - Millar; Inverness - Raven (sent off), Devine, Taylor
David Raven’s red card for hauling down Rowan Vine was, said Inverness manager Terry Butcher, “very, very harsh – the boy didn’t have control and the ball was running away from him, it just wasn’t a clear goalscoring opportunity. It was very disappointing and we will appeal it.”
That sending-off dominated tactics, with the visitors trying to frustrate a clearly dominant St Johnstone and win a point, and with Caley rarely breaking out of their own half.
“I thought we were tremendous at frustrating St Johnstone and showed magnificent spirit for 78 minutes,” said Butcher.
For St Johnstone manager Steve Lomas, winning ugly thanks to substitute Nigel Hasselbaink setting up Steven MacLean’s late goal, was mission accomplished as Saints drew to within a point of third-placed Inverness with three games to go.
“This is a great result that keeps us in there fighting for third place,” he said. “We’ve got a tough run of games but the boys showed great heart out there.”
Lomas may be right, but St Johnstone made hard work for themselves, a fact he blamed on the poor quality of the McDiarmid Park surface. Certainly there are unlikely to have been many halves as one-sided as the first half that have ended scoreless, especially given that Caley were reduced to ten men so early.
St Johnstone dominated from the outset, with Butcher’s men managing just one shot on target, which came after almost an hour.
For a match that meant so much to both clubs. Inverness were curiously lacklustre even before Raven was dismissed after just 12 minutes for a foul on Rowan Vine.
If that was bad for Caley, things could have been even worse had Daniel Devine connected with Vine in the first ten minutes when he slid in, studs up, and the Saint had to jump smartly to avoid serious injury. Had Devine connected, his yellow card would undoubtedly have been red.
In those early exchanges, Vine’s movement clearly unsettled Caley. The former QPR man doesn’t score as many goals as his talent merits – and tends to go missing at times in games – but his willingness to run at Caley’s back four led directly to two cards and a slew of chances.
He almost got on the scoreboard himself when his marvellously struck free-kick from just outside the area was met by an equally spectacular save from Antonio Reguero.
Still, St Johnstone never created the clear-cut chances their superiority warranted.
Gregory Tade hit the post, Frazer Wright headed just wide from a corner and Steven Anderson shot just wide, but by far the most spectacular effort was undoubtedly a cracking attempt from Mehdi Abeid, who broke in from the left and unleashed a wicked curling shot which cracked back off the bar with Reguero well beaten.
If the first half had been frustrating for the home fans, much of the second was more of the same. Down to ten men and under the cosh for the first 45 minutes, Caley Thistle set out their stall when they substituted Billy McKay for Nick Ross, a sure sign that they had shut up shop.
St Johnstone continued to make chances, with Gwion Edwards, Tade and Anderson all trying their luck, but with Vine going missing again and Abeid coming off injured before halftime, it was Lomas’ decision to bring on Hasselbaink for Tade midway through the second period which finally tipped the balance in their favour.
The former St Mirren and Hamilton striker has started just twice since the new year and after yesterday’s match he reiterated that he wants Lomas to play him or let him go.
He certainly did his cause a power of good when he provided the spark the home side needed to break the deadlock, bearing down on goal, beating one defender and then playing a beautiful ball with the outside of his foot to the near post where MacLean arrived to head it home for the winning goal.
The visitors never looked likely to come back on level terms, yet with three games to go, Inverness remain a point ahead, have a superior goal difference and a considerably easier run-in with two home games and no Celtic, notwithstanding the Highland derby on the final weekend.
Not that Butcher and his men will be feeling comfortable: this loss has ensured that squeaky bum time has arrived with a vengeance.
ST JOHNSTONE: Mannus, Mackay, Wright, Anderson, Millar, Tade (63), Craig, MacLean, Abeid (41), Vine (87), Scobbie. Subs used: Edwards (41), Hasselbaink (63), Cregg (87)
INVERNESS: Reguero, Raven, G Shinnie, Tudur Jones (80), McKay (65), Draper, Foran, Meekings, Doran, Devine, Taylor. Subs used: Ross (65), A Shinnie (80)