ST JOHNSTONE kept alive their hopes of securing European football for a second successive season with a hard-fought victory at Tannadice.
Scorers: St Johnstone - Craig (38)
Bookings: Dundee United - Millar; St Johnstone - Wright, Cregg
A first-half strike by Liam Craig was enough to keep pressure on Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the quest to finish third in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League.
For a while, it looked as though the Perth side would leapfrog their Highland rivals, but a late goal at the Caledonian Stadium put paid to that. As it is, they are just a point behind Terry Butcher’s men with two games left, away to Celtic next week and at home to Motherwell on the final day.
Despite an opening half hour in which they were fortunate not to fall behind, especially when Gary Mackay-Steven missed an open goal, St Johnstone did enough over the course of 90 minutes to deserve what was their first league win against Dundee United in nearly 13 years. The odds are probably still against them looking out the passports, but without a defeat in their last six matches, they are not short of confidence.
“We are still in there fighting,” said Steve Lomas, their manager. “We just wanted to take it down to the last day. We know it will be difficult. There’s a few walking wounded in there, and we have a very big game at Celtic next week, but the effort the boys have given us is nothing short of fantastic.
“It’s no coincidence that we had a fantastic away support. It really makes a difference. I hope the fans realise how much they played a part in today’s derby. When you’ve got about 1,500 supporters behind you, it gives the player a helluva lift. They go the extra mile.”
The plume of yellow smoke that emerged from that travelling support just before kick-off suggested that there was more at stake than usual for St Johnstone, although it seemed to be a while before it dawned on the team. In an uncomfortable opening period for the visitors, United were the more threatening, thanks mainly to their flair players.
Stuart Armstrong, who curled a shot wide in the opening minute, set up their best chance of the first half when he jinked down the left and picked out Mackay-Steven 12 yards from goal. The young winger, with more time and space than he needed, contrived to fluff his chance.
Gradually, St Johnstone got a foothold in the game. Rowan Vine had the odd foray into the box, and Steven MacLean directed a header high and wide, but it wasn’t until seven minutes before the interval that they took the lead with their first proper chance. When Gregory Tade extricated the ball from a tight spot, laying it into space around the penalty spot, Craig swept it, left-footed, inside the right-hand post. The Hibs-bound midfielder is used to frustrating United, who succumbed to his last-minute equaliser at McDiarmid Park in April.
Frustrated by his team’s deficit, Jackie McNamara made a double substitution that included the introduction of Johnny Russell, returning from a broken leg. Russell and Rory Boulding came on to play up front, pushing Michael Gardyne into midfield and Jon Daly back to centre-half, but the impact was limited.
In fact, it was St Johnstone who found their range in the final third. Vine’s shot across the goalkeeper was heading for the far corner of the net until Radoslaw Cierzniak fumbled it wide. From the resulting corner, Murray Davidson had a header saved before Steven Anderson blazed over from the edge of the box.
McNamara, whose team have lost all three of their matches since the split, bemoaned the injuries that have denied him almost all of his back four. Sean Dillon, who was added to that list here, will undergo an operation on his ankle this week.
Still, young John Souttar continues to impress at centre-half. “I just think the boy’s fantastic,” said McNamara. “He will still take the ball no matter how the game is going. That’s the bravery I’m looking for.”