THE football version of the action movie Face/Off was played out at McDiarmid Park yesterday. Never can two teams seem to have swapped identities and characteristics so utterly.
Scorers: St Johnstone: May 17; Mackay 26; MacLean 73, 81
St Johnstone, with only two points from their previous five games, treated their Inverness visitors to a wholly unexpected tanking by displaying all the virtues and virtuosity that had allowed Terry Butcher’s men to be sitting top of the Premiership going into the encounter.
The menace anticipated from goal-a-game Billy McKay was delivered in sparkling fashion by Perth plunderers Stevie May and Stevie MacLean, with three goals and four assists between them. And the beavering, balance and brio that have been hallmarks of Inverness as they banked 19 points from a possible 24 simply oozed from Tommy Wright’s side.
Indeed, as much as Butcher was aghast at the efforts of his own side – “we picked up 11 strangers on the A9” he lamented – he displayed genuine admiration for his opponents’ excellence.
“They were absolutely brilliant,” he said. “We took a smashing. Now we know how Hibs felt when we did that to them last week. They were first to every header, every challenge and in every one-on-one. I couldn’t say much more about St Johnstone short of applauding them from the sidelines.”
The rout was, Wright said, “very satisfying”. “It eclipsed our European wins [in Trondheim and Minsk] and the 4-0 against Ross County. The quality of our play, the tempo we played at, was easily our best performance of the season. I had no failures, from the starting XI to the subs. Inverness are a side I rate highly and weren’t sitting at the top of the table for nothing. They had only conceded four goals before today.”
They could have doubled that tally of concessions within half an hour yesterday as St Johnstone rampaged – their attacks so incisive and fuel-injected it could only be wondered at how they hadn’t posted a league win in six weeks.
Inverness, without James Vincent and David Raven and so forced to change their starting line-up for the first Premiership game of the season, simply could not shackle the bustling, barnstorming May, who was on hand to ram the ball past Dean Brill from close range after a slick move involving MacLean and Gary McDonald had opened the Highland side up 17 minutes in.
Nine minutes later they were sliced apart by another swift, sweeping move that allowed May to play in Dave Mackay through the middle, where he powered goalward and found the net once more.
It was a wonder the third didn’t then arrive until 17 minutes from the end but no surprise that the May-MacLean combo once again did the damage, the former rolling the ball in from the right to allow his strike partner to tee himself up and clip in a low drive from the edge of the D. Another May cross from the right, closer to the byline this time, allowed MacLean to head in his second of the afternoon. Even if the home supporters made the double scorer the man of the match, yesterday felt like a May day.
The 20-year-old was praised for his improved link-up play that yielded three assists, and admitted that was a part of his game he had worked to improve and that “the results are starting to show”. The player, with seven goals this season, stated that his “long-term aim” was earning a full international call-up, though he acknowledged that, first up, he would “need to get in the first team of the under-21s and score a goal or two”.
All told, St Johnstone probably scored five of them. With the scores tied early on, Dean Brill clawed out a McDonald effort but did so when side-on and suspiciously far behind the line. Wright was full of sympathy for the officials, sounding ever so reasonable about the lack of finance in the game up here for goal-line technology and how it was too much to expect referee Steven McLean or his assistants to make such a call from their hardly advantageous angles.
Then he came clean. “Listen, if it had been 1-0 or 0-0 I would be giving you a different response.”
The response of his counterpart, meanwhile, will not be to sulk.
“The players have been generally great and I said a few things in the dressing room quietly to them, which I don’t normally do. We might seem to have two weeks to think about this because of the international break but I want to erase the memories of today as quickly as possible. Throw them in the hamper and chuck it off the Kessock Bridge.”