A STOPPAGE time strike from captain Dave Mackay threw St Johnstone an unlikely Europa League lifeline.
Scorers: St Johnstone - Mackay (90); Spartak Trnava - Schranz (34, 64)
With the classy Slovakians in command of the two-legged tie, the Perth captain rounded off a resilient display at odds with that offered by many of his colleagues by hammering home a penalty box finish which holds out a degree of hope for next week’s daunting trip to Spartak’s borrowed stadium in the town of Zlate Morace.
Two earlier strikes by impressive striker Ivan Schranz in either half of a contest dominated by the visitors were scant reward for the Slovaks superiority.
While Perth manager Tommy Wright was back in the technical area after returning from his mother’s funeral in Northern Ireland 24 hours earlier, there was no sign of top scorer Stevie May, whose penalty strike against Luzern seven days earlier helped ease Saints past the highly regarded Swiss. The Perth camp had feared a thigh muscle injury might keep him out of the starting line-up but the Scotland U21 international wasn’t even on the bench and Lee Croft started the match.
Defender Steven Anderson was listed among the substitutes after getting the all- clear on a hamstring strain which had kept him out of the pre-season friendlies.
The Slovaks arrived in Scotland after a free weekend, with manager Juraj Jarabek delighted with the support shown by his national authorities in advance of a European sojourn, their derby clash with Slovan Bratislava having been put on hold.
The visitors, backed by around 100 fans, were quick to take the game to Saints and posed a serious threat in the fourth minute.
Central defender Frazer Wright was caught out for pace and flirted with a red card as he attempted to halt a run from Martin Mikovic which carried the attacker into the box, where keeper Alan Mannus barred his route to goal.
Instead the striker picked out supporting runner Jan Vlasko but his shot from the edge of the area lacked venom and Dave Mackay cleared the danger.
Milan Bortel was cautioned for handball in the 13th minute. But twice Mannus was tested in the space of 60 seconds by towering Slovak Ivan Schranz.
First the Northern Ireland international was alive to the near post threat and turned an angled shot for a corner. It was swept over by Vlasko and Mannus leapt to tip a netbound header over the bar in the 14th minute.
Mackay again had to come to the rescue when Schranz lined up a strike with Wright grounded and the winger squeezed a header past the post with the visitors’ superior possession paying dividends in terms of territorial advantage.
In the 29th minute midfielder Chris Millar exited with Gary McDonald replacing him.
But it was no real surprise when Spartak secured a 34th-minute lead, with the scorer equally predictable.
The Perth defence was dismantled with a flick by Markek Janecka into the path of Schranz, who thrashed a 16-yard shot into the net.
David Wotherspoon finally got a shot on target five minutes after the restart but keeper Dobrivoj Rusov wasn’t unduly troubled.
Saints forged a rare opening in the 56th minute when a defender misjudged Brian Easton’s cross but Gary Miller’s 10-yard header swept past the post.
Then a Miller cross caused panic in the Spartak ranks before the keeper scrambled across his six-yard box to gather.
The Slovaks weren’t exactly rattled but Vlasko was yellow carded for a wild challenge which floored McDonald.
In the 63rd minute they doubled their advantage after teenage midfielder Brown was caught in possession in midfield. His attempt to atone only released Schranz to face the advancing Mannus and, while the keeper got a touch on his first attempt, the striker calmly rolled home the rebound.
The closing stages got rather tetchy with Miller being shown a yellow card after a melee triggered by his robust touchline challenge on Vlasko. In the closing minutes Wotherspoon tried his luck from 25 yards only to clip the crossbar. And that encouraged Saints to mount a late assault which finally paid dividends.
Wotherspoon drove the ball across the Spartak penalty box and Mackay calmly took a touch before hammering a low shot into the net.