IT WAS only six weeks ago that St Johnstone went 1-0 down at home to Motherwell and for a brief moment the reigning Scottish Cup holders looked strong candidates for the relegation battle. They refused to give up in that encounter, coming behind to win the match, and the same resiliency has since kept up an unbeaten run which now reaches seven games with this hard-fought victory over Kilmarnock.
Scorers: Kilmarnock - Graham (82)
With Alexei Eremenko missing for the hosts and a hamstring injury forcing James McFadden from the action only four minutes into the second half, it was always going to be a contest high on endeavour but low on attacking quality. Credit to both teams, however, for keeping up a breathless pace throughout as the action zipped from one end to the other, culminating in the counter-attack which led to the only goal.
Michael O’Halloran, buoyed by the kind of confidence that comes from his recent goalscoring exploits, roasted Darryl Westlake for pace on the right wing before cutting across the defender and drawing a foul inside the penalty area.
Brian Graham took the resulting spot kick, sent the keeper the wrong way and enabled St Johnstone to leap above their opponents into the top six.
“I thought we were excellent,” said manager Tommy Wright after the game. “We defended when we had to, particularly at the start of the game, then as it went on we came into it more. In the second half I thought we controlled the game, controlled possession, and looked the team more likely to go on and win it.
“I have to give the players a lot of the credit, they’ve been magnificent. We’ve looked a lot more like ourselves in recent weeks. All the components of how to win a football game – we’ve done that today.”
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Things could have been very different if not for Alan Mannus’s excellent save within the first 60 seconds. Graham later likened it to an “Andy Goram” stop. It certainly was of the highest quality as the keeper displayed lightning quick reflexes to get down quickly and claw away Robbie Muirhead’s first-time volley.
Eremenko’s absence pushed home boss Allan Johnston into selecting a more physically robust side, with Josh Magennis on the right of midfield supporting Lee Miller and Muirhead in attack, increasing the home side’s threat from set-pieces.
Primitive it may have been, but St Johnstone’s experienced defence looked incapable of dealing with it in the early exchanges as another floated free-kick should have led to a goal. On this occasion Magennis was desperately unlucky to see his effort cannon off the calf of Frazer Wright, who hadn’t even been looking in Magennis’ direction, before looping over the crossbar.
This was Kilmarnock’s brightest spell in the match and Johnston later lamented their inability to take advantage while they were on top.
“It’s a sore one to take,” said Johnston. “When you look at the game overall we should have at least taken a draw.
“We created enough opportunities to win the game, but that’s what happens when you don’t take your chances.”
They can scarcely ask for a better chance this season than the one which came the way of Tope Obadeyi shortly before St Johnstone’s winner.
The away side got themselves into a terrible muddle over a routine long ball forward, with Obadeyi nipping in between the retreating defenders and goalkeeper, and finding himself in an open-goal scenario with only one covering defender.
At this point he had a choice: either square to Magennis for a simple tap-in or go for goal himself. He proceeded to do neither. His attempt at finding Magennis was so bad that the ball eventually rolled to Rory McKenzie 25 yards from goal.
The substitute showed a similar lack of composure by smashing the ball high over the crossbar.
Five minutes later St Johnstone won their penalty. Westlake looked to get a foot to the ball but was judged to have gone through the back of O’Halloran to get there, with referee Don Robertson immediately pointing to the spot. There was a discussion between Graham and O’Halloran over who should do the honours. Graham won the argument and with O’Halloran’s eyes “burning the back of his head”, in the player’s words, he coolly slotted home.
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