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St Johnstone

So, the big (non Old Firm soap opera) news in Scottish football is that, after much speculation, St Johnstone’s highly regarded manager Derek McInnes and his assistant Tony Docherty have agreed to take over at Championship side Bristol City. As St Johnstone supporters we are sad to see them both go but wish them both luck. With McInnes having guided Saints to the SFL1 title and re-established the club in the SPL after a 7 year absence, as well as regular strong cup runs, on one of the tightest budgets in the league, it was only a matter of time before he would move on to the next challenge.

Today’s events leave Saints at somewhat of a crossroads. When a manager is sacked, a complete change in approach is usually desirable to help cut out the rot. However when a manager moves on during a successful spell, some level of consistency must be desirable to maintain the momentum. With Docherty having followed McInnes south, the option of appointing the apprentice is removed.

There’s a case to be made that this season’s squad may be Saints’ strongest since that which finised 3rd in the SPL in 1998/99 and went on a European adventure the following season, all achieved under the watch of Sandy Clark who came to the job in similar circumstances to the present after Paul Sturrock was lured away to Dundee United. While I usually give little heed to superstition, it would be nice to experience a similar situation again!

Sturrock, McInnes and his predecessor Owen Coyle all shared in common a number of attributes: little or no managerial experience, but plenty of drive and ambition. Much has been made of chairman Geoff Brown’s success in bringing through young, inexperienced managers with good contact books (a necessity at Saints!), the popular expectation is that this will be the route taken again – though I have fears that this luck may run out eventually. That said, experience is no guarantee of success, and an untried or unkown quantity seems more exciting than the usual names that will be in the mix now that we’re a managerless SPL club rather than a managerless First Division club.

So, while names like Jim Jeffries, Jimmy Calderwood and John Hughes are being thrown into the mix, it’s the more “left-field” (and sometimes fanciful) names that are more interesting; current players Jody Morris and Callum Davidson, club legend and current Arbroath manager Paul “Peanut” Sheerin, Cowdenbeath player-assistant Colin Cameron, Brechin boss Jim Weir, Wigan assistant Graeme Jones …all the way to Rangers veteran Davie Weir (mates with McInnes? likely to want to go into coaching?) and Gary McAllister. Frankly, the media lists look like a combination of usual suspects, wishful thinking and a scan of the We are Perth forum.

Interesting times, but there’s still regular business to deal with. Saints travel to local rivals Dundee United on Saturday, with the Tannadice side on a dip of form and questions hanging over the future of manager Peter Houston. Hopefully the current situation at Saints won’t impact on an excellent chance to register a first league win over the Arabs since our return to the SPL – Saints late collapse in the two teams last encounter, surrendering a 3-1 lead to draw 3-3, is still a sore memory. Jody Morris and youth coach Alec Clelland are reported to be in temporary charge for the fixture.

Goodbye and good luck, Del and Doc. Thanks for everything!

St Johnstone vs Livingston
Scottish Communities League Cup Round 2
FT: 3 (Wright 13; Sandaza 18, 25) – 0
Attendance: 2,439
Wednesday 24th August 2011

I’m just in from Saints second-round League Cup tie against Livingston, and although not wanting to write a full blog post on the game I thought I’d try to note down some quick thoughts.

Having been to all three home games so far this season, I think this is the most confident I’ve seen Saints in a while. Although you could argue that Livi are “only” a First Division side, I had expected them to present a serious challenge to Saints – they’ve had a great start to the season, scoring 23 goals in six competitive matches, with ex-Saint Kenny Deuchar in particularly fine form. By contrast, until Sunday’s win over Celtic Saints had continued to struggle in front of goal. The poor show in our last home game against Dunfermline hardly gave me confidence that we’d turn over a side that would be well fired up to take an SPL scalp. As you may have guessed, I do rate Livi pretty highly, so despite some nagging fears thought it would be a good game so headed along on my own (for the first time ever!).

Turned out my fears were misplaced – Saints started strong, with Murray Davidson firing over the bar after a matter of minutes, soon followed by an opening goal attributed to Fraser Wright in a goal-mouth scramble. Cillian Sheridan shot just wide in a repeat of his near-miss at Parkhead on Sunday before Fran Sandaza scored his first two Saints goals, the first of which was a screamer from 20 yards, to complete the scoring well before half an hour had passed.

For once, the chances didn’t stop there. Even though I’m delighted with the result, there’s a little part of me that was disappointed it didn’t end up four or five. According to the BBC match report Saints had 6 shots on target and 11 off. I remember Davidson putting another one over the bar then injuring himself in a later collision with the keeper, Jody Morris put a couple of shots in the second half, and in the dying minutes new loan signing Willie Gibson put another just over. A great bit of build up play from Gibson and Sandaza found substitute Marcus Haber in front of the box with a clear chance on goal, however the ball had gone between his legs and his attempt to backheel it in went awry – just one of those things I guess, if he’d pulled it off it would have been a cracker.

To give Livi their due, despite going three down they came back into the game (sense a theme?), made a few chances of their own and saw quite a bit of possession in the second half, though ultimately struggled to make the break through. The Good Doctor himself Kenny Deuchar was taken off at half time, presumably due to an injury, but seemed fairly anonymous while he was on the pitch.

I don’t know if it was just because I’d switched ends at half time and was closer to the moaners so it became more obvious, but Saints did fall back into frustrating spells where they continued to pass the ball back rather than pushing forward when in Livi’s half – there were a couple of occasions on particular where there appeared to be good opportunities to get the ball towards the box that weren’t taken. I’ve read elsewhere (but didn’t spot myself) that McInnes was raging about it.

A really good team performance tonight, with everyone on the park doing themselves proud over the full 90 minutes. Sandaza lived up to a lot of the early promising, showing the imagination that’s maybe been lacking in the final third for a while. Gibson made a strong debut, looking like he could team up well with Sandaza and Sheridan. The defence was solid, Enckelman looks like he’s got his confidence back, Jamie Adams looked like a player that should be on the pitch regularly and Dave Mackay had another great game.

It’s still early days in the season, but the last two games have definitely given me a more positive outlook – I’m now looking forward to Dundee United’s visit on Saturday!

Michael Lambert

Dundee FC vs St Johnstone FC
Pre-Season Friendly
FT: 0-2 (May 19, Mackay 50)
Attendance: 2,172
Wednesday 13th July 2011

1. The Clubs

Firstly, I must confess to being guilty of the number one sin possible for a Saints fan to commit – I have a soft spot for Dundee FC. There, I said it. I’ve always enjoyed the rivalry between the teams and see the Dark Blues as pantomime villains as opposed to genuine hate figures, preferring to save any actual bile I might have for things like landlords and the bank. Or at least the Old Firm. I miss the derby matches when they aren’t there and look forward to them more than any other fixture when they are, games against Dundee Utd just don’t have the same appeal.

Saints and Dundee are clubs of similar size and support, run in completely contrasting ways as businesses but both seemingly destined to bounce between the top 2 divisions indefinitely. The rivalry between them stems, in part, from the closing game of the 1961/62 season when Dundee came to Muirton Park and won 3-0, a result which secured the league title for the away side whilst relegating Saints. Since then many memorable encounters have played out in both Perth and Dundee, including a 2-2 draw at McDiarmid in the mid 90’s where the visitors turned out in Saints’ away strips due to both their own kits that season being blue (d’oh!), the famous 7-2 victory for Saints on New Year’s day 1997 and the last meeting of the sides, when former (and now current) Dundee striker Steven Milne struck to all but secure the first division title for the Perth team in 2009.

St Johnstone brought a more recognisable looking squad up the A90 on this evening than the one that we saw in Arbroath, trialist Marcus Haber the only non-numbered player to start. Danijel ‘Subo’ Subotic was in attendance but didn’t feature and there was no sign of ‘Trialist Jimmy’ or the mystery winger from last week. More worrying was the absence of Murray Davidson, fuelling rumours of a possible move to Rangers.

Enough has been said about Dundee’s recent financial issues and I’m not going to bother chipping in with my ten cents here. The last time I saw them play was in November against Partick Thistle. A hard-fought 2-1 victory with Jamie Adams scoring Dundee’s late winner in one of his last loan appearances for the club before returning to Perth. The siege mentality at Dens at the time, just after their 25 point deduction, was fascinating. The atmosphere was electric though, with the fans supporting their team like champs from start to finish. The home side fielded tonight was a million miles away in terms of both personnel and spirit but with key figures Rhys Weston, Craig McKeown, Nicky Riley, Ross Chisholm and Graham Bayne all missing, it’s perhaps harsh to judge them off the back of a one-off match.

2. The Ground

Dens Park falls into the category of ‘cut ‘n’ shut’ grounds that are, sadly, becoming increasingly rare creatures these days as teams like St Mirren, Falkirk et al move off to pastures new and identikit. Refurbishment in the 90’s has left Dens with a strange blend of the old and the new. Behind each goal sits a modern all seater stand in the style found at countless stadiums around the country. A  seated covered enclosure, affectionately known as The Derry, runs along half of the South side of the pitch. The most vocal supporters are usually found there, although tonight only the Bobby Cox and Main stands are in use. The latter, a bizarre dog-leg shaped structure where the Saints fans are housed this evening, is a relic from a bygone age and a lovely, if completely impractical, example of form over function.

Dens Park, Dundee

Our view was almost comically poor, with the roof of the stand and a couple of pillars teaming up to make an ordeal of enjoying the game. The leg room allowance was ridiculous too but we managed to relocate to seats at the top of one of the staircases where this wasn’t a problem before it got too busy. Entry was ten pounds with a half price concession for kids and OAPs. Gate prices for Season 2011/12 will be £19 for adults, £10 concessions.

3. The Game

The match kicked off in very clement atmospheric conditions, which have made me seriously reconsider my anti-summer football stance, although there wasn’t an awful lot to write home about in the first half. The Saints midfield knocked the ball about nicely and carved out a couple of half-chances early on while Dundee’s attacking threat came in the form of Steven Milne. The former Saint almost pounced on a couple of moments of defensive shakiness but failed to get a shot off either time. The deadlock was broken midway through the first half when Stevie May turned in a towering Marcus Haber header at the back post following a Sean Higgins corner from the right. A Jorg Albertz-esque free kick effort from Saints’ Callum Davidson was the only other first half event to get the Perth fans out of their seats.

St Johnstone almost added a second right at the start of the second but Marcus Haber saw his square ball turned behind by a defender before Sean Higgins could get a touch. Minutes later, however, the lead was doubled and the game effectively killed off as Morris and Higgins teamed up beautifully to set up right back Dave Mackay who took a touch before finishing tidily from inside the box. I’m pretty confident it’s in no way biased to call it a goal Barcelona would be proud of!

St Johnstone goalkeeper Peter Enckelman wasn’t tested until midway through the second half, the Finn holding well from a powerful header by Dundee’s trialist centre half. Multiple substitutions by both sides followed and the game petered out, Dundee worked hard to carve out opportunities but lacked the killer instinct they’ve shown in recent years. Saints came close to adding a third when substitute Jamie Adams lost his marker to get on the end of a free kick but sent his first touch of the match a yard wide. The only other real talking point was, what looked to us like, a blatant handling of the ball outside the box by Enckelman which riled the Dundee fans behind the goal.

4. The Banter

As mentioned in article 1, St Johnstone v Dundee is a fixture I love, thanks in no small part to the heated and entertaining exchanges between supporters – although as this was the first time I’ve attended it as a friendly it was an odd experience, like in Back to the Future Pt II when Marty goes to the parallel 1985 and everything looks familiar but is all wrong. The large St Johnstone support was great to see, especially given the ‘boycott 6p in the pound FC’ attitude of a lot of our number. The home turn out was disappointing by comparison and the two empty stands and relative positioning of the home and away supports killed any chance of an atmosphere.

As Mssr Lambert was unable to make it on the night I was accompanied by our mutual pal, Johnny, who is a great guy to watch a game with and a good time was had despite the lack of atmosphere and terrible view. Attempted chants of traditional away-end-at-McDiarmid-Park anthem ‘What a Shitey Home Support’ from the Saints fans raised a smile, as did Derek McIness’ stint as a stand in ballboy. There was a definite ‘still got it!’ twinkle in his eye as he raced after a stray ball in his traditional matchday attire of shorts and boots!

5. The Verdict

An enjoyable evening in the Summer sun. From the display on offer Dundee supporters might have a lot to worry about for the coming season, and will have their work cut out if they want to be title contenders in the notoriously competitive first division. St Johnstone look a lot more creative in the final third than they did last term which is heartening, although the team fielded tonight is unlikely to be the first choice 11. If Marcus Haber signs he looks like he will be an important part of the team this year. Our biggest problem last season was a lack of goals, hopefully Haber and/or Subojtic could be an answer to this.

McIness opted to start Haber out wide on the right, in a similar fashion to that which striker Colin Samuel was often utilised last season, before shuffling the formation a bit and playing him as a more out-and-out centre forward for the last 20 minutes or so. Seventeen year-old St Johnstone substitute Liam Caddis looks pretty handy and I hope to see some more appearances off the bench from him this year.

Not a classic game of football by anyone’s standards but following season 2010/11 I will happily accept anything that features a St Johnstone goal!

Mike Lennie

Dundee website: www.dundeefc.co.uk
St Johnstone website: www.perthstjohnstonefc.co.uk

Arbroath FC vs St Johnstone FC
Pre-Season Friendly
FT: 0 – 2 (Craig 46, Moon 89)
Attendance: c. 750
Monday 4th July 2011

1. The Clubs

Although we don’t see ourselves purely as a St Johnstone blog, we would have been hard pressed to pick a more Saints-centric tie to kick off our adventures – no less than seven of those lining up for tonight’s hosts have also previously turned out for the Saints, with Josh Falkingham even continuing to train full-time with the Perth side.

Although St Johnstone achieved a second consecutive eight-place SPL finish and an appearance in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup (albeit making a painfully limp exit) last season, the club also picked up the dubious distinction of being the lowest-scoring league side in the country. A mass clear-out of strikers followed, along with the loss of out-of-contract defenders Danny Grainger (off to Hearts) and fans-favourite Michael Duberry (Oxford United).

Season 2010/11 saw Arbroath player/manager (and former Saintee) Paul Sheerin guide the club to an instant return to SFL2, winning the SFL3 title and in turn securing the club its first senior honours in its 123-year history. The club will now be looking to consolidate in the second division and possibly push on further.

2. The Ground

Gayfield (no sniggering at the back) is located on the outskirts of Arbroath, next to amusement arcade/living 1970s time-capsule Pleasureland and backing onto the North Sea. It is this latter feature that I imagine makes the ground a tough place for opposition teams to visit during the winter months (i.e. pretty much the whole of the Scottish football season). [EDIT: I’ve been reliably informed on twitter by my friend James, of the exellent Tales From the Pigeon Stands, that Gayfield holds the honour of being the closest league ground to the sea in the UK!]

Arbroath vs St Johnstone, Gayfield Park, 4th July 2011

The ground has a single seated main stand, facing out towards the sea, and terracing running around the remainder of the pitch with a ‘pigeon stand‘ on each side offering some protection from the elements. We were free to move around on the terraces to try out a number of vantage points, or just stare wistfully out to sea.

We drove from Dundee and found the ground easy to locate. Parking was on the waterfront. Entry was £8, however this was for a friendly – the Arbroath FC website states that 2011/12 league games will be £12 for adults. Being an evening match we had both dined before leaving, so didn’t join the lengthy queue for the catering concession located round the back of the main stand.

3. The Game

The game itself, I think it is fair to say in my limited experience, was relatively typical pre-season fare. Although Scottish football has seen the shortest close-season in recent memory, both sides looked rusty in the early stages. Saints started with new signing Carl Finnigan (ex-Falkirk) and a trialist (one of six listed on the team sheet) upfront and only one of last seasons regular defensive line-up (Dave Mackay) in place.  All the same, the game was competitive (if scrappy) with Saints’ Kevin Moon coming closest to breaking the deadlock late in the first half, his chip over Arbroath keeper Darren Hill unfortunately rebounding off the bar.

The second half started brighter for Saints with substitutes Sean Higgins (ex-Dundee) and Stevie May combining to set up Liam Craig for the opening goal. Arbroath continued to exact pressure, with a mazy run from Sheerin and a number of saves forced from St Johnstone keeper Peter Enckelman, though ultimately it was Kevin Moon who got a second and final goal for Saints in the dying minutes of the game.

4. The Banter

Both sets of fans were quiet on the night. Mike got plenty of amusement out of the fact that the linesman on our side of the ground looked no older than 14. My personal highlight came late in the second half when your humble correspondent got a touch of the ball – a stray clearance looked to be heading out into the terraces until I brought it nonchalantly back under control with a beautiful first touch … though unfortunately the following poorly taken short pass back may have invoked the disdain of Saints’ young midfielder Liam Caddis. That or he was confused why the ballboy was bigger than him and on the wrong side of the fence.

5. The Verdict

Ultimately it’s a little unfair to make judgements on either side in a pre-season friendly, especially the first one. I’m a little haunted by our excitement about Cleveland Taylor on his Saints debut at Forfar last pre-season, and with so many new faces and trialists a cohesive team performance is not always likely. That said, it was good to see Callum Davidson back in a Saints shirt. He looked lively, covering the length of the pitch from left back and at one point making an opportune run up the left after switching places with Craig, who had been driven back but ultimately couldn’t get the ball to Davidson. Trialist striker Danijel Subotić looked promising and was subsequently invited to participate in St Johnstone’s subsequent friendlies in Ireland  against Drogheda and UCD.

Arbroath look like a strong, physical, side who are comfortable playing together and more than capable of holding their own against full-time opposition. Sheerin has brought in some new faces, including former Scotland midfielder Brian Kerr, but appears to have been able to keep the core of last season’s succesful side together. I look forward to returning to Gayfield once the season is underway to see Arbroath in league action.

Michael Lambert

Arbroath website: www.arbroathfc.co.uk
St Johnstone website: www.perthstjohnstonefc.co.uk