ST JOHNSTONE midfielder Paddy Cregg believes the Perth club owe their Fair City faithful a prolonged run in the Europa League.
Tommy Wright’s side are enjoying their fourth European campaign and have already claimed the scalp of Norwegian league leaders Rosenborg.
Striker Steven MacLean gave Saints a 1-0 lead over third qualifying round opponents FC Minsk in their first-leg meeting in Belarus last week.
They now host the return fixture tonight with a play-off place at stake and the chance to land a spot in the money-spinning group stages.
Around 8,000 supporters turned out to see the team dispose of the Trondheim heavyweights at McDiarmid with a 2-1 aggregate win a fortnight ago and another sizeable crowd is expect this evening.
Irishman Cregg now lives amongst the Perth support and has seen first-hand what their unbeaten start to the season has meant to the fans. Now, he claims, further progress is the least those supporters deserve.
The former Hibernian midfielder said: “We need to make sure we can get a good result so we can keep our confidence up. The whole place, the town and everything, will be buzzing if we do manage to get through and set up a massive play-off game.
“I stay in Perth and you don’t normally feel that level of expectation when you are out walking about the place.
“But there was a real sense before the Rosenborg game that people were behind us. Now there’s a bit of a buzz about the Minsk game too, which is good.
“For league games, you don’t get much of that but now there seems to be this buzz building around the town.
“Before we played Rosenborg, everyone I bumped into was wishing us luck and it’s the same for this game as well.”
While European games have drawn large gates, crowd figures for the Scottish Premiership have been more modest.
Hearts brought 3,500 supporters with them for Sunday’s league opener, outnumbering those there to back St Johnstone in their own stadium. But Cregg is hopeful another Europa League win will have the Saints fans queuing up to back the team.
“There’s no pressure because of the fans’ expectations,” he said. “We’re just feeding off that support.
“The lads want to play for the town and our very loyal supporters. We want to get more of them along.
“If it means doing well in this competition and persuading more of them to come to our league games, then that is what we aim to do.
“But they do seem to savour these big games. Last year when we played Eskisehirspor, there was 6,000 and something here and then for the game against Rosenborg, it was the biggest crowd I’ve witnessed since I’ve been here.
“Hopefully, it will be more of the same on Thursday. We appreciate those who do turn out because these things cost money and the fans are making a sacrifice to come and support us. We will try our best for them.”
But Cregg is wary of the threats posed by the stubborn Belarusians.
He said: “They played on the counter over there in Grodno and I imagine they will do exactly the same over here.
“They sit in and defend but they have got some good players that are comfortable on the ball. They look to suck us in and break as fast as they can so we need to be careful.
“But we’ve got the one-goal lead. We need to make that count. An early goal would be helpful.”
St Johnstone defender Frazer Wright will return from suspension to help lead the team’s charge for a Europa League play-off spot. The centre-half missed Sunday’s opening Scottish Premiership victory over Hearts after serving a one-match ban carried over from last season but is back for the visit of Minsk.
Otherwise, Wright has a full-strength squad, apart from long-term leg-break victim David Robertson.
Minsk coach plays down Saints row
FC MINSK manager Vidam Skripchenko last night played the diplomat when trying to defuse the handshake row which marred the first leg of his side’s Europa League clash against St Johnstone in Belarus.
Saints manager Tommy Wright criticised the Belarusian for blanking the traditional handshake and dashing up the tunnel after the 1-0 visitors’ win.
But last night the Minsk manager insisted: “Too much has been made of this accident. I am ready to make the first step. Whether we win or lose, I’ll shake hands.”
Saints chief executive Steve Brown hopes any fireworks are kept for the pitch rather than the stands. He warned St Johnstone fans to behave or risk Uefa’s wrath.
Saints flirted with a rap after the clash with Rosenborg when two flares were let off and have pleaded with supporters to leave the pyrotechnics at home tonight. Brown said: “Sadly, our earlier appeal went unheeded by a very small minority of the fantastic support that night and the club has been fortunate that has not had repercussions for the club.
“We atmosphere. But we want it created in a manner which does not spoil the night for other spectators, which causes damage, which risks trouble for the club and which damages the name of the club.”