For all concerned it was as good as they could have hoped for. Hibernian had gone into the day knowing that their work had been done and that promotion was guaranteed. All that remained for them to do was see out the final 90 minutes of their Championship winning season and hoist aloft the trophy.
St Mirren, though, had to endure a day of highs and lows before their fate was sealed. The Lazarus-like comeback they had been cultivating since Jack Ross took charge in October finally came good as they secured a draw at Easter Road to earn themselves a seventh-place finish and give them something to build on next season.
Having ensured survival,the Paisley manager was open about just how lofty his ambitions are. “You have to go and want to challenge next season. I said that when I took the job and with hindsight, if I had known what I was coming into, I probably wouldn’t have said it. But that’s where I want to take the club,” said Ross.
“I’m not satisfied with seventh in the Championship. I’d be satisfied if I could take the club back to the Premier League and I feel we can do that. We have proven over the second half of the season that we can compete with every team in this division, including the champions today.”
While St Mirren had propped up the league for the majority of the campaign, having won just four points by the start of December and only escaping the foot of the table as they headed into March, their hosts have had to deal with a different kind of pressure this term.
After two seasons of losing out to Hearts and then Rangers, they were the out and out favourites to win the title and make the jump back to the top flight. Having delivered on those demands with a few games to spare, yesterday was all about the party, as they received the trophy and medals and were able to enjoy a lap of honour.
For manager Neil Lennon, a veteran of several such days as a player and a manager, it was more emotional than he anticipated. “I didn’t know how I was going to feel after what I had done at Celtic,” he said. “But it felt every bit as good. I have a real personal amount of pride in the club, in the people I work for and work with. It meant a hell of a lot. I was trying not to get emotional out there but I think the older you get the more it means to you.
“When you play you take it for granted at a big club like Celtic, and as a manager at Celtic your expectation is to win the league. Yeah we went into the Championship as favourites but we certainly merited the champions tag. We’ve won the league handsomely. I’m just immensely proud of everyone at the club. It has really grown on me! It has gotten into my skin. I didn’t think it would, but it has. It’s a great feeling.”
On a day of tension for the travelling supporters, players and manager, St Mirren had matched their hosts throughout the first half, and had been buoyed by the news that main rivals for the relegation play-off spot, Raith Rovers, had been reduced to ten men against Ayr United. But they suffered a setback four minutes into the second half when Hibernian striker Grant Holt got on the end of a John McGinn delivery to nudge the home team ahead. It left St Mirren perilously close to a play-off spot. But, as they have done all season, they showed an unwillingness to countenance such an outcome and having poked and prodded in the hope of finding a way back into the game Rory Loy eventually fired low into Ofir Marciano’s net in the 60th minute.
Working hard to retain parity there were murmurs from the crowd indicating fluctuations in scorelines elsewhere but none of it mattered as Saints saw out the game.
“I was aware from our crowd’s reaction what was happening – but I did wrongly think that Ayr were winning 2-1!” admitted Ross. “Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing as it calmed me down a bit. Then I discovered it was 1-1, then 2-1 to Raith – so when I saw referee Alan Muir walk toward the ball it was a special feeling.”
If the equaliser had been well celebrated, that was nothing compared to the joy displayed on the final whistle as the fans, players and staff tried to work out just how they had pulled off a feat that seemed unthinkable not so long ago.
“When we were celebrating, we’re not celebrating St Mirren finishing seventh in the Championship,” said Ross. “Because we need to – and do – have bigger aspirations than that. We are celebrating what we have achieved in the last few months, because that turnaround is remarkable. To come to the home of the champions, handle the occasion and come from behind, is just indicative of how they have been as a squad. It is a very happy dressing room and I’m delighted for the players. Our reaction to the goal for Hibs was magnificent, the football we played and the chances we created showed great belief. I’m so happy for them.”