Danny Swanson netted a controversial late goal and Craig Thomson added a second to give St Johnstone a hard-fought victory over Aberdeen at Pittodrie.
Danny Swanson has already agreed to join Hibernian in the summer and managed the neat trick here of pleasing their supporters as well as those of his current employers with a performance that strengthens St Johnstone’s chance of denying Hearts the one remaining European place.
The Perth club’s win at Pittodrie moves them six points clear of their rivals from the capital and they can thank a combination of Swanson and substitute Craig Thomson for a first win in five matches against Aberdeen this season.
Eighty mainly turgid minutes had dragged by when Thomson’s shot was parried by Joe Lewis and Ryan Jack was penalised for passing it back to his goalkeeper and despite the acute angle, Swanson swept the free-kick into the far corner for his 14th goal of the season.
Three minutes later Swanson took advantage of Aberdeen’s vain attempts to equalise by racing clear from his own half to deep inside the opposition’s before rolling a pass to Thomson, who celebrated his first goal for the club with a sublime shot across Lewis from the edge of the area.
The 22 year-old, on loan at Stranraer earlier in the season, could be pleased with his individual contribution and his manager, Tommy Wright, was so enamoured with the overall team display that he wouldn’t discount catching Rangers, never mind leave Hearts trailing in their wake.
“I felt two wins would be enough so if we can get one more win we should be there but it’s not a done deal yet,” said Wright. “We aren’t going to relax yet, though, and neither can Rangers or Hearts.
“If we can split one of the big four and finish fourth then it would be an incredible season for us. We know the prize is Europe so our aim is to go to Celtic next week and try and get something there and get the job done as quick as possible.”
Aberdeen had swept forward from the off, doubtless encouraged by Rangers’ defeat at Ibrox prior to kick-off, but they found their opponents were a resilient lot.
Not surprising really as the Perth club’s last visit to Pittodrie was also the last time the Dons had been involved in a draw some 23 matches ago, a venue where only the Old Firm had returned home with maximum points this season.
The first half hinted we were in for a repeat as St Johnstone defended with a diligence characteristic of their form away from home. It meant a bruising encounter devoid of much in the way of fluent football.
Aberdeen’s Shay Logan and Jonny Hayes along with Saints’ pair Steven Anderson and Joe Shaughnessy had their names noted by the referee, who also had to speak with Ryan Christie and Wright when Celtic’s on-loan midfielder and the Perth club’s manager had a frank exchange of words on the touchline.
As far as the actual football was concerned, Swanson squandered the only real chance of the opening half for the visitors, scampering clear of the offside trap only to be caught by Hayes.
Then just before the interval a delicious Hayes cross at the other end was missed by Shaughnessy only for Kenny McLean to send a diving header wide of the goal from just six yards out.
The second half was no better, with opportunities for either side at a premium until Thomson’s introduction with 18 minutes left, although Derek McInnes was as unhappy with referee Alan Muir’s interpretation of the crucial free-kick incident as he was with the state of the Pittodrie pitch.
“I don’t think it [Jack’s intervention] is a blatant pass back,” claimed a frustrated Aberdeen manager afterwards. “It is not a pass, he is nudged in the back and touches the ball but I cannot say it was a pass back.
“We are the second best team in Scotland but we have the worst pitch. Players were slipping and the ball was bouncing about everywhere. It didn’t help either side.
“Today hasn’t gone our way but we don’t go through long periods of not winning games. If we had been given nine points clear and a big goal difference at the start of the season we would have taken it.”
St Johnstone will be hoping the Dons return to winning ways and boost the Perth club’s chances of making it into Europe for a fifth time in six years when Aberdeen travel to Tynecastle next Sunday.