St Johnstone travel to Lithuania this week knowing that they have to score at least two goals. It is those efforts that Graham Cummins will concentrate on rather than waste his energy dwelling on the ones that might have been in Perth on Thursday.
The 29-year-old Irishman had a brilliant opportunity late in the first leg of the team’s Europa League first round qualifier against FK Trakai but, from close range, could not beat the visiting keeper. It means the guests headed home with, not only two away goals but also a lead.
“We were all deflated after the game, especially me,” Cummins said. “I had a great chance late on. I should have been scoring, there’s no two ways about it. I just tried to make contact with the cross and stuck out my left leg. The keeper made himself big and it’s a good save. But it’s a bad miss and there’s no excuse for it.
“No-one needs to tell me how bad a miss it was. The lads haven’t said a word to me about it. There’s no point dwelling on it. But I feel I’ve let the team down by not finishing it off. At least there’s a chance to put it right in Lithuania. I’ve got to move on now and try to redeem myself because it’s only half-time in the tie. We have to go there and score two goals.”
There was also a blocked strike from a central area in the first half and a follow up that soared high over, leaving Cummins wondering what might have been. But while he was kicking himself for those squandered chances, he was more bewildered by the referee’s decision to chalk off a Joe Shaughnessey header. Cummins was deemed the reason for the unwelcome intervention, with the officials claiming the Saints striker had impeded the keeper.
“Joe headed it and I jumped for the ball. I didn’t even see the keeper,” said Cummins. “I don’t know why it was a free-kick. He hit me as much as I hit him. But keepers get the protection, that’s the way football is. You just move on.”
This is the Perth club’s fifth attempt at reaching the Europa League group stages in the space of six seasons, which is an impressive record for a club of St Johnstone’s size. But with that experience comes greater expectation and having failed to make it past the first qualifying round in the last outing, two years ago, losing out on the away goal rule to Armenia’s FC Alashkert, there is a desire to defy detractors and overhaul the deficit.
Manager Tommy Wright has insisted every one of his players is capable of producing an improved display in Vilnius on Thursday. He described the Lithuanians as a more technically gifted side but felt his players had not contained the threat.
Content with the start, he was frustrated to see his men then give their opponents the time on the ball they needed to make the most of that technical superiority. But he believes his players can learn from that and Cummins is adamant that while they trail their rivals after that first leg, there was enough to suggest there is a way back.
“I thought we got a lot of joy from diagonals and headers,” he said. “That’s maybe something we can work on but I’m not the manager. We know more about them now. We didn’t know quite what to expect at the start and you could tell they have been playing competitively. They kept the ball well and moved it nicely. It took us a while to get into our rhythm and credit to them. But we certainly aren’t going over there thinking we’ll just see out 90 minutes and start looking towards the new league season.”
But there is an increased burden on Cummins’ shoulders, not only to compensate for the misses at McDiarmid Park but also to make up for the enforced absence of his strike mate, Steven MacLean.
The artificial surface at FC Trakai’s home ground rules out the player who regularly misses domestic trips to Hamilton and Kilmarnock because doctors have insisted his knee is not up to the impact of playing on that kind of pitch.
“I always put an onus on myself, whether or not Macca is playing,” said Cummins. “Every player from one to 11 goes out to do a job for the team. You always think this is your opportunity. You have to do your job no matter who is on the pitch.”
But recent signing Stefan Scougall could provide the necessary spark to ignite a comeback. Not match fit, he only featured as a second-half sub in the first game but he made a positive impression and, with more tough training sessions and game time under his belt by the time the teams square up again, he could help sway things in Saints’ favour.
“You saw glimpses of what Stefan can do when he came on in the second half,” said Cummins. “He did well on the half-turn and you can tell he’s one of those players who can play the ball into dangerous areas. He is an intelligent footballer. Unfortunately he wasn’t fit enough to play 90 minutes but I’m sure he’ll be fitter by Thursday and will be a big asset to us. The tie is definitely not over. I don’t believe we can’t go over there and score two goals and keep it tight at the back.”