JOHN Sutton was told to stay at home when Motherwell faced a nightmare journey to face Kuban Krasnador in Russia two years ago. But St Johnstone’s new striker insists he is relishing the prospect of making a competitive debut for the Perth club in Thursday’s Europa League first-round qualifier with Armenian side Alashkert – even if it means a 6,000-mile round trip.
The centre-forward, who savoured European ties against Tottenham Hotpsur and Liverpool in his Hearts days, insists the target has to be to claw their way to the group stage.
If Saints can beat Alashkert, then Serbian giants Red Star Belgrade or Kazakhstan side Kairat Almaty lie in wait in the second qualifying round.
Sutton, 31, will warm up with a run in today’s lunchtime clash with Aberdeen at Brechin’s Glebe Park.
He said: “I didn’t go to Krasnodar a couple of years back. We lost the first game 2-0 at home so the manager, Stuart McCall, decided the travelling was too much for four or five of us.
“The first game of the season was against Hibs on the Sunday so he decided that because we were up against it, it would be better if we stayed behind.
“That was purely down to the travelling because the lads didn’t get back until 6am after the game.
“It was a really long trip for the lads and although I wanted to go, I could understand why he did it.
“It’s impossible for players to travel all that way, play a game, fly home overnight and then be at their best for a game just a day or so later.
“Thankfully this time we don’t have a league game to worry about so we won’t have that distraction.
“So we can go there and try to get through to the next round without the manager having to think about league matches as well.”
European football has become a regular summer challenge for the Englishman but he takes nothing for granted.
Last summer Motherwell lost out 5-4 to the Icelandic side Stjarnan, who play Celtic in this season’s Champions League qualifiers.
“I have played in Europe regularly in the last few years. It’s incredible really. I had it with Motherwell and also with Hearts, so it’s good to come here and be playing European matches as well.
“It was disappointing at Motherwell last season in Europe being knocked out early. But at Hearts we got great ties against the likes of Spurs and Liverpool, which were great occasions. So I have had a mixed time in Europe so far, with some disappointments and also some massive games.
“The one thing I would like to do is get to the group stages. It’s a big ask because of the amount of games you play and the fact you’d have to get through this round and then beat three seeded teams. But you never know what’s possible in football.
“It’s hard for Scottish clubs because of the coefficient but you can’t go into something thinking it’s impossible. Right now that’s miles away and all we can do is focus on the job we have to do in Armenia.
“We can’t afford to look too far down the road because when you do that you slip up. So although playing the likes of Red Star Belgrade would be fantastic, nobody here is thinking about that. The focus is totally on the game in Armenia and getting through that tie.
“Scottish clubs have come unstuck in the past at this stage in Europe but the short break will help because the lads’ fitness is really good.”
Sutton was caught up in the drama of Motherwell’s play-off wins over Rangers but he’s ready to go again.
He said: “I came in one day after I signed to do a fitness test then the gaffer, Tommy Wright, gave me a few more days off because of the season finishing so late for Motherwell.
“I joined the lads for the trip to Belfast and it was really good. We had a hard week of training but it’s got us ready for the European games.
“Playing Aberdeen will just top us up and it will help them out as well before we both kick off on Thursday.
“The lads here are a fit bunch anyway and have only had three weeks off, so everyone is in great shape and ready to go.
“It’s great to have a European game to look forward to so early because any player will tell you that you’d much rather have competitive matches than a run of friendlies.
“It’s something I have enjoyed in the last few years and coming to a new club it’s great to have a real match so soon after arriving.”
Sutton laps up Euro competition but he believes UEFA bigwigs should re-think the format.
“The lack of regionalisation is strange when you think about it.
“There doesn’t seem much sense in sending teams from one end of Europe to another in the early stages.
“I think everyone agrees there should be a regional aspect to it because it’s going to be hard for our fans to get there.
“We’d love to have a good travelling support behind us and I’m sure if we’d been drawn in Scandinavia or somewhere like that then we would have. So it’s a shame that people who do want to go to the game probably won’t because of the travelling involved.
“As players, all we can do is just focus on our job and try to make sure we have another game for them to go to.”
Thursday, 2 July
First qualifying round, first leg
Alashkert v St Johnstone
• Alashkert are based in the Armenian capital Yerevan and play at the 6,850-capacity Alashkert Stadium.
• They finished fourth in the Armenian Premier League last season.
• The second leg is at McDiarmid Park on Thursday, 9 July.
• Winners will face either Red Star Belgrade (also known as FK Crvena Zvezda) or Kairat Almaty of Kazakhstan in the second qualifying round.