SINCE the start of the season St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright has been bemoaning his side’s slow start to games and uncharacteristic defensive sloppiness. Well, they did it again yesterday – falling in arrears in 11 minutes to a Louis Moult goal after gifting possession – but this time at least for Wright and the Perth side’s supporters there was a happy ending.
It was the fifth game in a row that the Saints had conceded first and perhaps it was the law of averages that meant that for once a spirited second-half showing was rewarded with a win. The comeback theme was to the fore with Steven MacLean getting both of their goals to turn the tide – the striker who only last week scored for the first time in 12 months after an injury ravaged spell looked back to the full sharpness that has made him such a key player for St Johnstone in recent seasons.
They tend to open league campaigns this way – stumbling in the early phases of matches – and there’s no doubt that getting their first three points will be of huge psychological importance to Saints, particularly given the respective placings of themselves and Motherwell going into this game. For the visitors, this was a curious affair – they could have been two or three goals to the good by the interval but they fell away badly after the break and there are at least some worrying echoes of last season’s struggles in their current run of poor form.
“We started a wee bit nervous, I don’t know why,” reflected Wright afterwards. “Their goal I think we could have done better with, but the second half was very much what we wanted, starting on the front foot. Overall, I think we deserved the win over the 90 minutes – I keep saying this, but the players have got character in abundance”.
There’s no doubt that Saints’ players do seem to love an uphill climb. For the opening goal, Brian Easton ought to have mopped up a loose ball. Instead, the full-back was indecisive. Lionel Ainsworth gratefully accepted the second helping and crossed for the on-rushing Moult to poke over the line from a couple of yards out. As if that wasn’t bad enough from the Perth side they actually had cause to be grateful that it wasn’t worse just a couple of minutes later. More lamentable defending saw the ball given away to Moult and the big striker really ought have beaten the advancing Alan Mannus.
As the visitors continued to look the sharper, Scott McDonald and Ainsworth both fired in blistering efforts that just flashed off target. Only as the interval approached did Wright’s men finally muster something in the way of a goal threat with two impeccably-struck shots by MacLean drawing splendid reaction saves from Connor Ripley.
It took more than a terse half-time team talk to turn around this game for Saints. The introduction of David Wotherspoon in place of Simon Lappin was pivotal as the sometimes mercurial midfielder injected a much-needed sense of urgency to the hosts’ play. After Graham Cummins had knocked at the door with a header that rattled the crossbar, the equaliser came just over the hour-mark via a fine sinuous move that finished with Cummins squaring the ball for MacLean to drill home from six yards.
With the visitors fading out of the game after the restart, the momentum shifted inexorably in Saints’ favour and, on an afternoon that had been replete with elements of déjà vu, it was fitting that their winning goal bore no little similarity to their first, with Michael O’Halloran doing some fine spadework down the right to cross for renaissance man MacLean to once again slide into the net from close range.
Motherwell were left frustrated not just by the points slipping from their grasp, but by a late penalty claim when Jake Taylor fell to the floor in the home box. Match referee Craig Thomson not only airily dismissed their pleas, but also produced a yellow card followed by red for the visitors’ midfielder as he had already found his way into the book for an earlier offence.
“We were causing them problems by getting in behind their defence and we created many chances – but that dropped off in the second half and that can’t happen as you ain’t going to win games of football like that”, was the candid verdict of the disappointed Motherwell manager, Ian Baraclough.
St Johnstone: Mannus; Shaughnessy, Mackay, Scobbie, Easton; O’Halloran (Craig 87), Davidson, Millar, Lappin (Wotherspoon 59); Cummins (Kane 73), MacLean. Subs not used: Sutton, Clark, McKay, Thomson.
Motherwell: Ripley; Law, Laing, McManus, Hammell (Chamlers 46); Ainsworth (Leitch 68), Lasley, Taylor, Johnson; McDonald (Thomas 77), Moult. Subs not used: Twardzik, Kennedy, Clarkson, Cadden.
Referee: Craig Thomson. Attendance: 3,361.