An angry cry crashed into the night sky from the Cappielow main stand the other night as referee Craig Thomson awarded St Johnstone a free-kick. “Aye, do yir usual, Thomson,” shouted a Morton fan as his side were succumbing to a League Cup quarter-final defeat. “Favour the big teams.”
The temptation to chuckle at the description of the modest Perth club as a “big team” quickly gave way to a realisation that the description was bang on: St Johnstone are consistently now proving to be one of the leading forces in the Scottish game.
The 3-1 victory over Jim Duffy’s Championship side has ensured that the McDiarmid Park club can look forward to a seventh domestic cup semi-final in 10 seasons. Only Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen have appeared more often in the last four of the country’s knockout trophies during that period. Of course, with the Scottish Cup delivering them a first major honour last year, they are one of only eight sides to land serious silverware in the past decade.
Last weekend, with 10 men, Tommy Wright’s men claimed an injury-time penalty winner at Inverness that nudged them into the top six of the Premiership. That has become the natural habitat of a club it is sometimes forgotten only escaped the second tier in 2009. Since 2011-12, St Johnstone have been perennial top six finishers. Celtic and Dundee United are the only other clubs in the country that can make that boast.
Liam Craig, who returned to the club in the summer from Hibs, has now been a playing part of all three of the Perth club’s pushes to gain/retain prominence. He featured under Derek McInnes as promotion was earned, was a key player as first McInnes, then Steve Lomas, established the club in the top flight and is now a trusted senior player under Wright, whose managerial feats in Perth have eclipsed all his predecessors. Wright’s tactical nous has been to the fore in the club’s landmark victories and accompanying cup expertise. Regeneration of a side that has competed in Europe in each of the past three summers has been just as much a calling card of the Irishman, though.
Craig previously played in a St Johnstone side heavily reliant on Stevie May for goals. Now, there is no one single source, even if the pace, power and precision finishing of Michael O’Halloran are fast making him the latest big thing in the Scottish game. “I think when you have players like Mikey in the team [you can expect to score]. When he gets on the ball he excites people as he goes past people. Then you’ve got Macca [Steven MacLean] – that’s his 10th goal of the season already. If we can keep him scoring goals that’s another threat,” said Craig.
“You look at the midfield tonight – myself, Simon [Lappin], Murray [Davidson], David Wotherspoon... we’ve all scored goals and, if we are going to be successful, it’s going to take a whole squad. You saw against Morton Kano [Chris Kane] coming on having done well at the weekend and getting his goal that helped see the game out for us. I think we’ve got a good squad of players here.”
Wright said post-match on Tuesday that there wasn’t a player in Scotland currently performing better than O’Halloran. The 24-year-old has tipped himself for Scotland recognition and is likely to be the subject of interest in the forthcoming window. Craig is sure he will know that at present the grass wouldn’t necessarily be greener. A Celtic’s youth, O’Halloran struggled to make an impression as a youngster at Bolton Wanderers and had less than productive loan spells at Sheffield United, Carlisle and Tranmere Rovers.
“The manager has said we want to keep him and hopefully he does stay because the club wants to go and win trophies and compete,” said Craig. “If we are going to do that we need to keep our best players at the club and he’s definitely one of them.”