“Top of the league,” was the tweet from Manchester United the other day – to which St Johnstone replied: “So are we but you don’t see us boasting about it.”
Well, Tommy Wright’s men are still loftily-placed and looking down on just about everyone else, albeit Celtic have deposed them at the very summit by being one goal better off. But they’ve still managed to set a new record by winning their opening three games in the Premiership for the first time. Put that in your pipe, Jose Mourinho, and smoke it.
So will Saints start crowing now? “It’s a fantastic start but only a start,” said Wright after Michael O’Halloran’s latest fizzer of a goal on his return to Perth had secured the victory.
“However, if you’d told me before the season began that we’d be going to Celtic this week for a top-of-the-table clash – God, I’d have taken that. We’ll go with great confidence as the last team to beat them domestically and who knows, maybe we can cause a major surprise.”
Saints went into this game looking down on the rest of the top flight for the first time in 20 years, but only the previous week Thistle had come to McDiarmid Park in the Betfred Cup and left with a handsome 3-0 victory.
Rejuvenated these past couple of seasons under Alan Archibald, Partick returned to Perth on the back of headlines like: “We’ve made Firhill sexy.” The word “sexy”, though, wasn’t actually used by any of their players – the Jags don’t like to boast either.
There wasn’t much sexiness in the opening exchanges from either side. O’Halloran showed his winged feet with a dash up the left in the first minute and was then starved of the ball. In the 11th minute the first chance fell to Joe Shaughnessy, given a clear sight of goal after Steven Anderson had an effort blocked, but he shot straight at the keeper. This was all the more galling for the home fans when they discovered that, at the same moment, their old hero Stevie May had scored for Aberdeen.
After that it was back to the head-tennis in the middle of the park, broken up by overhit passes. Thistle, with the pony-tailed Australian Ryan Edwards scrapping gamely, took until the 28th minute to replicate their hosts’ opportunity, Alan Mannus being fortunate that Anderson was there to bash the ball away after the keeper failed to hold a straightforward Chris Erskine strike.
Thistle kept venturing forward, their English totem-pole Adam Barton leading the charge, but in the 33rd minute O’Halloran, who had darted inside from his beat, was found in the inside-right position by Anderson’s excellent arrowed pass to net off a post.
One McDiarmid Park regular reckoned the assist would have made Franco Baresi proud. Did the stopper mean it?
“Ando’s capable of that, believe it or not, just not very often,” smiled Wright. “But some of the guys were saying in the dressing-room that he meant to hit a diagonal and the ball came off his shin.”
It was the fourth goal in three games for O’Halloran, back on loan from Rangers –- a strike of “composure and intelligence” according to his manager.
“Michael couldn’t ask for a better start playing for us again,” Wright added, “but I’ve not been surprised by his goals because he’s a very good player. That’s why I wouldn’t give up on trying to get him to return to us, why I was particularly stubborn about it.”
Thistle had a chance early in the second half when Mannus again failed to hold, this time after a shot by Steven Lawless. Anderson was a dogged presence in the Saints backline as Thistle kept pressing but they had to keep an eye on O’Halloran, who galloped into the box to thrash a shot over the crossbar.
Thistle tried again, Niall Keown chancing his luck from fully 40 yards. It was a better second half and the visitors thought they had a penalty when the ball struck Murray Davidson’s hand. “I’ve seen them given but we needed to do more to get back into the game,” admitted Archibald.
It was important his players didn’t panic after their third successive defeat, nevertheless the losing run worried him. “We have to go and win games. We don’t want to leave ourselves with a mountain to climb because I don’t think the league will be so forgiving with the qualities of teams in it.”