IT SAYS much about Tommy Wright’s frustration at St Johnstone’s lack of self-belief and creativity yesterday that he suggested the great Diego Costa couldn’t have mustered much against Inverness if locked in a similar mind-set.
Scorers: Inverness - Watkins 61, Christie 66; St Johnstone - Graham 78′
That might have been harsh on Chelsea’s Brazilian wonder but it was a point that hit home – Wright wasn’t about to blame the absence of Stevie MacLean for Saints’ shortcomings.
Defeat to a consistently dominant Inverness amounted to another setback for the Scottish Cup winners in a difficult period of injuries.
Wright, though, felt those who did play lacked conviction until far too late after second-half strikes from Marley Watkins and Ryan Christie.
Brian Graham did spark a late stampede with his reply, but it failed to secure a scrambled point as Caley Thistle went back clear at the top overnight.
“I don’t know about missing Stevie MacLean. Diego Costa might not have done it for us in the first half today,” Wright said.
“We didn’t get people high enough to hurt them. We were not brave enough on the ball. Passes in midfield were going straight to the back four again, rather than someone taking responsibility.
“We could have got a point in the end, but overall it was fits and starts again from us. In the first half they had slightly the better of it without creating many chances.
“In the second half, I thought we started really well but again there was a reluctance to put the ball in the box. We make a mistake that should be dealt with – and they counter it and get a goal.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t react well. They probably dominated until they got the second, another careless mistake from us but a decent finish.
“Then at 2-0 down, we start to play with the urgency and make more forward runs. We do put the ball in the box and, lo and behold, we get the goal.”
Graham’s late spanner in the works was the first home goal conceded by Hughes’s men and one that, for long enough, never looked likely. Saints knew they could draw within a point of Inverness with victory, but were without players of the import and influence of Scott Brown, Steven MacLean and Tam Scobbie through injury.
But proven scorer Graham took on the striking responsibilities eagerly but was to find first-half pickings particularly thin, with Caley Thistle dominant in possession and chances created.
Just before the hour, Marley Watkins was guilty of a carelessly over-cooked through-pass from midfield as Billy Mckay made an intelligent dart into space.
It might have been costly for the hosts, but Watkins was to make amends brilliantly just a few minutes later. Gaining possession deep in midfield, he this time picked out Aaron Doran perfectly on the left. The Irish winger’s return pass was played perfectly in front of Watkins who had time to control in front of out-coming Alan Mannus and then beat the keeper calmly.
It had been patience personified from Inverness – and they went 2-0 up after 66 minutes. Again Doran was involved, carrying the ball towards the left corner before finding Graeme Shinnie who quickly supplied it to the feet of Ryan Christie.
Controlling elegantly just inside the left angle of the box, the Scotland Under-21 cap unleashed a low strike that nestled in the far corner of Mannus’s net.
But the home side were suddenly sweating again, in unlikely fashion, after 78 minutes when they conceded their first home goal of the season.
Lee Croft’s delivery from the right found Graham poorly marked by Josh Meekings and able to angle a header past Dean Brill. Suddenly, it was the home side’s support who were edgy – but they held on.
“It’s all about patience – I keep saying it,” John Hughes stressed. “It’s not going to be all gung-ho when you come and watch Inverness. It’s not like that. It’s about ball retention.
“But eventually when it came it was a great goal. Marley Watkins deserves that. There’s never much between the teams but it was just a matter of getting the goal, and when it came it was a cracker.”