IT is a measure of how well St Johnstone have done in recent years that there was no fanfare and very little celebration as they got the three points they needed to guarantee them a top-six finish.
St Johnstone 2 - 0 Hibernian
SCORERS: St Johnstone: MacLean (18), McGivern (55og)
Venue: McDiarmid Park
Referee: S McLean
The manager, Tommy Wright, who is in hospital recovering from a gall bladder operation, had texted his players before the match to wish them all the best and remind them of the effort they had already invested and instructing them to now make it count.
He will have been anxious as he listened to the update on the radio but he needn’t have been. This is a team that has rarely let themselves or the club down in recent years.
“He said we had worked so hard to get where we were and to just go and finish it off,” said defender Dave Mackay.
“We managed to do that. He obviously spoke to Callum [Davidson, who took charge in his absence] about the tactical side and he put all that in place. They are a good team.”
So, too, are the players, which is pretty much the secret of their success. With a budget and a fanbase which would point to life in the lower half of the Premiership table, they continue to defy the odds.
“Overachieving is exactly what we are doing,” added Mackay. “That is the last three years we have made the top six ahead of clubs such as Hibs and others. Maybe they are under-performing but we are certainly over-performing. To do it three years in a row is incredible.
“We have a group of boys who work so hard for each other. There are no big-time players or anything like that. We know our limitations at times but the work we put in gets us results.
“At the start of each season, very few people predict St Johnstone will finish in the top six.
“They look at the budget, the size of the club, the size of the crowds and things like that. We are not very fashionable, but it doesn’t affect the players at all. We just go out and do our job.
“We wanted to do it for ourselves but also for the manager who couldn’t be here. It’s good to put the top six to bed at the first opportunity. We didn’t want it lingering into the last couple of games so we’re delighted to get it done. Now we can look to push on and try and catch teams above us.”
While St Johnstone, who still have a second cup semi-final to look forward to next month, were smarting at defeat to Ross County in their previous game, opponents Hibs desperately needed to arrest the recent run of poor results and manager Terry Butcher made six changes.
Some were forced, with Ben Williams preoccupied with the birth of his child and Paul Hanlon and Duncan Watmore both out injured, others, including the reinstatement of Kevin Thomson, were made in a bid to prompt a turnaround in fortunes.
They actually started the game pretty well and enjoyed a lot of possession but failed to test Alan Mannus in the Saints’ goal. The home side were less shot-shy and, although they got the two goals they needed, it would have been a far more significant haul by the end against ten men had it not been for goalkeeper Sean Murdoch.
Hibs’ stand-in keeper did not cover himself in glory at the first goal but he wasn’t the only one. They failed to deal with the corner and Steven MacLean forced the ball into the net.
Murdoch was furious and responded with a raft of superb saves. The one in the first half from David Wotherspoon was probably the pick of the bunch but after Hibs had gifted the hosts a second courtesy of a Ryan McGivern own goal in the 54th minute and then been reduced to ten men after Danny Haynes foolishly stamped on Wotherspoon and earned a red card, Murdoch was the only man between the capital side and humiliation.
He pulled off a couple of great saves from Stevie May, another from Gary McDonald and from Mackay to spare any further blushes.
“Aye, the first half wasn’t exactly great,” admitted Mackay, “but we kicked on in the second half, although they did have a man sent off. Towards the end it could have been six or seven goals. Their ’keeper has had a few magnificent saves though and we’re just delighted to get the win.”