BOTH these sides’ participation in Europa League qualifiers may have been short lived but St Johnstone’s last-gasp equaliser in this game from substitute Graham Cummins was at least mindful of the way that the smallest lapse in concentration is all too often punished in European competitions.
The outcome was desperately tough on Inverness as it seemed that John Hughes patchwork side had not only defied the odds in securing an away win, but had also played with no little discipline and cohesion in earning it.
Ryan Christie, the outstanding player on the field by a country mile, gave the Highlanders an early lead and on another day he would have had a hat-trick. However, tiredness did for them in the end and if Saints didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory throughout they simply kept going and going until Cummins came to their rescue.
Perhaps a little curiously given the way the game unfolded Hughes had by far the happier demeanour of the two managers afterwards. “I’m so proud of them”, was his verdict on his players. “We played some wonderful stuff, worked their goalkeeper, had a right few chances and I thought we were going to get away with it. It’s been a freaky pre-season going into the European games and picking up so many injuries. But I can smell that spirit, that underdog mentality about the place again – it’s back.”
Depleted through injuries and departures though they may have been, it did not take Inverness long to demonstrate the spirit Hughes was enthusing about, particularly in the shape of the emerging talent that is Christie. With their first serious attack of the game they gave the hosts a rude awakening as Dani Lopez pounced on some indecision in the Saints rearguard and, despite the Spaniard being guilty of over elaboration, the ball broke to Christie who sent a blistering low drive beyond the helpless Alan Mannus.
This early breakthrough was just the lift the Highlanders needed to rediscover the calm passing rhythms that served them so well last season and with Saints overly reliant on the unproductive ploy of hitting long balls in the direction of John Sutton they waited for their moments to pounce. The Lopez-Christie combination nearly doubled their advantage but as he advanced into the box the latter was thwarted only by a last-ditch tackle from Tam Scobbie.
The home side left the field at half-time with their supporters making their displeasure known, which was hardly surprising. Apart from some measured passes from Liam Craig and the occasional promising burst from Michael O’Halloran, they offered a woeful lack of enterprise. Only a powerful shot on the run from the Saints striker tested Owain Fôn Williams in the Inverness goal.
Saints did raise the tempo after the break and earned themselves a greater share of possession with the ever rugged Murray Davidson driving them forward. But there was little craft about their play. A cross from Craig picked out Davidson but the midfielder could only direct a weak header at Williams, while a dangerous O’Halloran cutback was just cut out by the visitors’ keeper.
The best flash of skill in a tightly contested second half once again came from the nimble-footed Christie, with Lopez finding him with a measured lay-off. His shot was venomously hit but Mannus somehow diverted it clear.
It was undoubtedly the pivotal moment of the game as there would surely have been no way back for Saints if they had fallen further behind at this point. To their credit, however, the Perth side kept grinding away and with the visitors looking heavy legged as the final whistle loomed it was always likely that one last chance would present itself for Tommy Wright’s men.
In the 90th minute it duly arrived, with Joe Shaughnessy swinging in a cross and Cummins was left unmarked to direct a header that had Williams finally beaten – and confirmed what had earlier seemed an unlikely share of the points.
“I think we deserved something from the game,” insisted Wright. “The second half was much better and you can never doubt our players’ character.”
St Johnstone: Mannus; Shaughnessy, Scobbie, Wright, Easton; Wotherspoon, Davidson, Craig, Lappin (Cummins 60); Sutton (MacLean 60), O’Halloran.
ICT: O Williams; Raven, Devie, Draper, D Williams; Horner, Polworth, Tansey; Christie, Mutombo (Wedderburn 90 +1); Lopez.
Referee: W Collum.