Raith Rovers 1-3 St Johnstone: Saints into semis

Nigel Hasselbaink celebrates putting St Johnstone 2-1 ahead. Picture: SNS
Nigel Hasselbaink celebrates putting St Johnstone 2-1 ahead. Picture: SNS
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AFTER their cheers had subsided at full-time, the St Johnstone support would have been forgiven for resorting to a collective groan.

Their team’s efforts in Kirkcaldy have ensured that, next month, the Perth club will tackle their eighth cup semi-final of the past decade and a half, a period that has brought seven defeats so far at the last-four stage of national knock-out tournaments.

These days, that statistic is clamped to a St Johnstone club who have yet to lift a major trophy, like a disfiguring limpet.

What it also says, though, is that, despite managerial and personnel changes, the Premiership club have developed an admirable habit of getting the job done in the earlier rounds of cup competitions.

In yesterday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final, with the odd hitch along the way in a wind that howled and swirled, they produced what even Raith winger Joe Cardle, who bagged a beezer of a goal, admitted was “a good professional performance that made them deserved winners in the end”.

For McDiarmid Park manager Tommy Wright, the outcome earned a warranted second semi-final of the season, following the 4-0 doing they received from Derek McInnes’s men in their last-four League Cup tie at Tynecastle in January.

“We deserve another crack at laying the ghost of the result against Aberdeen,” he said. “On our day we are capable of beating anyone.”

Just not in last-four ties of cups, history would suggest.

But the time is right for that history, and not just the recent variety, to be exorcised, according to the Perth side’s defender Dave Mackay who, it must be pointed out, said the same before the last semi-final.

He probably thought as much in the “four or five” he has contested in his career since a final appearance at the age of just 21 with Dundee.

“We keep putting ourselves in there and one time it will be different, so why can it not be our year this time? St Mirren and Kilmarnock have won cups in recent years, so why not St Johnstone? It would be deserved for the club and the players and we are due a bit of luck in one.”

St Johnstone looked set for a breeze, if you will, of a quarter-final when Gary McDonald sent in a hooked volley from close-in after the head of Steven Anderson helped the ball to him.

Cardle, though, threatened that comfort with a sumptuous scoop of long-range strike in the 20th minute. His effort sailed in off the far post from 20 yards and allowed the battling Championship hosts to take the initiative.

Helped by having the wind at their backs, their response was admirable, not least considering they are without a win in ten league games.

In giving it a go, the Kirkcaldy side manufactured chances to change entirely the complexion of the tie.

But Rovers were undone, ridiculously, by misdirection.

Frankly, Dougie Hill and Ross Callachan, set up by Cardle whipping dead balls into the gale and on to their bonces in unchallenged positions smack in the centre of goal, were guilty of desperately poor unchallenged headers.

“Taking chances likes these or not is the difference in a cup tie against a quality side,” said Rovers manager Grant Murray. In an unsavoury episode, Murray was heckled by a couple of boozed-up home supporters who had stumbled out of a nearby lounge as he spoke to the press post-match in the main stand concourse.

The quality that settled the tie was provided by Nigel Hasselbaink only minutes following the restart.

The wide man powered his way down the left channel, zipping past three white shirts as he kept going and kept just in control of the ball before poking a low effort beyond Lee Robinson from 12 yards.

It didn’t take the wind out of Stark’s Park – “the flags were going one way but the ball the other,” said Saints manager Wright – but it took the wind out of the home side’s sails.

Mentally and physically fatigued, there was no great surprise when, 11 minutes from time, Lee Croft sclaffed a corner, and the trundler allowed Anderson to dart to the front post to turn the ball over the line.

Even if a few over-indulgers in hospitality failed to recognise the fact, the main body of home supporters in a disappointing crowd of 3,767 – a low figure even allowing for the confrontation being screened live on Sky – clapped their team from the pitch at full-time.

So did the Perth contingent, but they probably did so a little nervously.

Raith: Robinson, Thomson, Booth, Fox, Watson, Hill, Anderson, Moon, Smith (Spence 83), Callachan (Vaughan 75), Cardle. Subs not used: Donaldson, Ellis, Laidlaw, Mullen, Matthews.

Goals: Cardle. Booked: None.

St Johnstone: Mannus, Miller, Easton, Dunne, Mackay, Anderson, Croft (Millar 86), McDonald, May (O’Halloran 82), MacLean, Hasselbaink (Wotherspoon 76). Subs not used: Banks, Clancy, Iwelumo, Cregg.

Goals: McDonald, Hasselbaink, Anderson. Booked: Croft, Easton, McDonald.

Ref: C Thomson. Attendance: 3,767