Two goals in the two minutes after half-time – the first after a contentious penalty decision, the second coming courtesy of a series of comic mix-ups in the St Mirren defence – effectively settled this season-opener.
A third added just ten minutes later gave an impression of comfort which had never existed in a nip-and-tuck first half in which St Mirren had the wind at their backs, yet the emphatic nature of this win was fully justified by a rampant second-half performance which sees Inverness leading the Premiership on goal difference after Butcher’s first opening-day win after five seasons in the Highlands. If that was a new and welcome development for Caley Thistle fans, the same doesn’t go for St Mirren’s supporters, who must already fear for the season ahead after this continuation of their side’s dismal pre-season form.
“I’m delighted, I can’t believe we’ve won on the first day of the season,” said an ebullient Butcher afterwards. “The first half was tense and tight, so I never envisaged a start to the second half like that. What a good start to the season for a change.”
St Mirren manager Danny Lennon struck a far more sombre and thoughtful tone. “In the first half we showed great character and fight, but we failed to punish them when we were on top,” he said. “Football can be very cruel because within a minute of the restart we’ve conceded a penalty which left our players very aggrieved, and then there were three defensive errors leading up to their second goal. Then we became very disoriented and disjointed. It’s left me with plenty of food for thought.”
Lennon has a point about the fiercely competitive first half which could have gone either way. In fact, until Inverness cut free at the beginning of the second half, this had been a standard issue early-season match, typified by misplaced passes and the sort of close control you’d expect if all 22 players had taken to the park wearing wellies. To be fair, a biting wind which tore in off the North Sea did little to help the ring rustiness.
St Mirren, playing with the strong wind, actually had the better of the first period. Steven Thompson, Caley’s nemesis last season, led the line well, making a nuisance of himself and opening up space for his team-mates. Gary Harkins, Marc McAusland and Thomas Reilly all had decent half-chances, but it was skipper Jim Goodwin who came closest, his free-kick rattling the post.
Despite a summer signing spree of ten players from non-league English sides, Inverness started with the guts of the side which ended last season. Yet the Highlanders struggled to hit their stride in the first half, with their best chance coming early when Aaron Doran screwed up a gilt-edged opportunity after being put through one-on-one with the goalkeeper following some good work by Premiership debutant James Vincent.
Indeed, it was Inverness’s two new players who were by far their most impressive performers. ’Keeper Dean Brill, who played due to an injury to Ryan Esson, was faultless, particularly in saving well from Gary Harkins, while Vincent played with an elan and poise that belies the fact that his last club was lowly Kidderminster. As Butcher said: “I like James, he’s a real athlete; these are strong characters these boys from non-league football, they know this is their chance to make a mark.”
Which is exactly what Vincent did straight after the break when he made the crucial breakthrough, latching on to Doran’s cross, only to see David Van Zanten throw himself in front of his goalbound shot. To the consternation of the St Mirren players, referee Kevin Clancy awarded a penalty which Vincent stroked into the bottom corner. A minute later the game was as good as over when the visitors failed to clear the ball, ’keeper David Cornell eventually scuffing his clearance to Dorans on the edge of the penalty area, the Inverness man stroking it into the net side-footed to make it 2-0.
Ten minutes later and with Inverness threatening to completely overwhelm St Mirren, some Dorans trickery down the right provided space for David Raven whose curling cross was glanced home by the head of Billy McKay.
For Inverness Caley Thistle, this was the perfect start, but the alarm bells are already ringing for a St Mirren side that disintegrated during the second half and had little to offer other than hoofing the ball towards Thompson. The beautiful game it wasn’t, and the Saints may yet have cause to thank their stars for Hearts’ 15-point deduction.