Chapter Five – The Great Escape Part Two.
MAY 15, 2017 / CAIRTERSCORNER1877
In an incredible turnaround, with four games to go Saints were actually in a position of safety following the thumping they gave Morton in Greenock. In the minutes after this match the players and Saints support greeted one another as though something very special was happening, and to be fair it was, the bond was back.
Reactions like that this are usually reserved for cup or promotion winning sides, but the ovation at the end of this match was merited as of course the team had clawed their way back from the brink, but in doing so had played some absolutely sensational football in the process. Plus we owed Morton, some of their fans had trolled Saints excessively for the past six months, revelling in the rarity of beating Saints and somehow us being actually worse than them, a true once in a three generation moment for the minnows.
In earlier chapters I spoke about a disconnection between the players, management and support under Alex Rae. Rumours of a clique in the dressing room, a manager who seemed to spend more time promoting himself as Mr Ranjurs than sort out the shambles on the park, players feeling the backlash of a disgruntled support after making mistakes. St Mirren park was not a happy place.
Jack Ross understood this. He tried and eventually did bring the supporters back together with the players and his management team with honesty and hard work. He subtly called out the slackers in the dressing by telling the support he had no option to play kids as they had ‘feeling’ for the club. He dropped, discarded and returned most of the ‘Imposters’ from where they came and then found players he knew the fans would like and get excited about. And we responded.
The magic of watching football returned from late February onwards, and a unified club marched onwards. It was going to take something extraordinary to stop us. The best compliment I can pay Jack Ross and the supporters is that together we turned the incredible atmosphere at the crucial 2009 Falkirk away match, widely regarded as the most vociferous travelling away support in Saints modern history, into an elongated three month campaign of incredible backing.
With all that said however, we still had a big job on our hands. Four games to go, three of which were away from home against the top three sides in the division, with the other at home to Raith Rovers. This was going to be tight without a doubt.
First up was a trip to the ‘Fourteen Finger County’ and a tough away fixture against Falkirk. Again the fans turned up in large numbers, almost 1500 filling the away stand in the Blast Zone Dome.
Rory Loy opened the scoring in a pulsating start that could have seen Saints out of sight after twenty minutes, but Falkirk of course are very decent at home and our old foe Count Miller sunk his considerable teeth into Saints for allegedly the second time in the season and equalised late in the first half.
Saints responded well though, and early in the second period Stephen McGinn scored a magnificent goal to restore our lead. The match wasn’t finished however, off the bench came Billy-Bob McHugh and his late scrambled effort denied Saints a crucial three points. It was disappointing but Saints remained eighth on 35 points, so nobody was too upset after a fine display.
The following Saturday was one of those days where everything that could go wrong for Saints inevitably did during a 3-2 defeat at Tannadice. Early in the match United striker Mikkelson, an old fashioned aggressive and physical forward, literally cleaned out firstly Jack Baird, and then seconds later Gary MacKenzie before rifling the ball past O’Brien in the Saints goal, for the first ever strike in the new sport of murderball.
The latter offence on MacKenzie was a chest high flying kick similar to Cantona on the Palace fan twenty odd years ago, that grounded the defender for a few minutes. After the appeals and complaints died down, the Saints centre half raised his shirt to show the Referee, Barry Chuckle, the stud marks raked down his chest as proof of the assault.
Mr Chuckle was having none of this, and immediately showed MacKenzie a yellow card for being booted in the upper body, a new SMA (Scottish Murderball Association) directive. Saints rallied hard after this, and from a Mallan free kick MacKenzie powered the equaliser home to level the match.
In the second half United restored their lead in bizarre circumstances after O’Brien inexplicably picked up a fifty yard pass back, and Tony Andreu fired under the wall to restore the Dundee clubs lead.
Young O’Brien had come into the side and performed well, but as you would expect from an inexperienced keeper he made a few mistakes, not many admittedly, but Langfield doubled his Scots lessons after this as a precaution.
The great thing about these mistakes was the reaction from the fans. No criticism, just encouragement for O’Brien to keep his head up and the big Welshman was clearly passionate about playing for Saints and cared what was happening. We did not forget this.
In an animated finish to the match, Saints equalised with a couple of minutes remaining thanks to a quite outrageous Josh Todd left foot strike, but Blair Spittal fired an injury time winner for the Arabs meaning by the end of play Saints had dropped to ninth again with Ayr United only two points behind. Saints next opponents Raith Rovers were a point ahead of Saints with a game in hand, and Dumbarton were now eighth, a further two ahead of Rovers.
Before Raith Rovers visited Paisley however, they had their game in hand to play against now Champions Hibernian at Easter Road. Rovers hadn’t won away from home for ten matches at this point, and on paper it looked like a home win.
However in the days before the match, Hibernian manager Neil Lennon announced he was going to rest his entire team that had played against Aberdeen the previous Saturday in the Scottish Cup Semi Final. Thanks for that Neil. Thankfully Lennon exaggerated, but as he would say it was just an honest mistake; he dropped only ten players and left Efe Ambrose in, nice one Neil.
In the previous chapter I spoke about bizarre things that happened outwith Saints control that impacted on our season, this was potentially another.
Lennon assured the media however that his full team would be playing the last home game, which just incidentally was against St. Mirren. How this is allowed is a mystery to me, and quite frankly there should be measures in place to stop the integrity of a competition being questioned, like they do in grown up leagues like England, Germany, Malta and San Marino.
Practically every Saints fan I knew was on Twitter, Ceefax or score apps that evening for updates, as the national broadcaster had decided that an under 10’s match between Celtic and Rangers was more important than actual real football that actual football players appeared in.
It was a nervy evening. Hibs led at half time, but Rovers then seemed to dominate the second half, finally equalising before Hibs scored again. Phew we all thought. Enter the pantomime villain Ryan bastarding Hardie from the bench and it was soon enough 2-2 after he scored, and this seemed like it was the ultimate Sod’s law; wherever Hardie played this campaign either for or against St. Mirren, he was having a massively negative impact on our season.
And then something nobody expected happened, Hibs reserves scored with the last kick of the match to win 3-2. James Keatings, we salute you.
So that was it confirmed then, a win against Rovers on Saturday would take us back out the bottom two and guarantee we couldn’t be automatically relegated as Raith played Ayr on the last match at Starks Park. All focus was now on Paisley this Saturday
Match day finally came. Did I think we would win? Yes I did. Did I think it would be nervy? Yes I did. Did I have several pints before the match to calm those nerves? Oh yes I did. Little did any of us know that we were about to watch another absolute masterclass from Saints.
The first twenty minutes were scrappy to be honest, then the match and Stephen Mallan in particular exploded into life. Mid-way through the first half Cammy Smith chased a ball that looked as though it was sneaking out, but typically of the man he managed to cut back a lovely ball to Mallan who was calmness personified and it was 1-0 Saints.
Soon after it was 2-0. Mallan curled a free kick round the wall and it went the opposite corner from the diving Penska to double the lead. Alex Rae was obviously working for the Press Association that day as it was given as an own goal, and clearly only someone with no knowledge of football would class that as not Mallan’s.
I’m not sure anyone knows how it went in, TV replays are inconclusive even about a deflection but it was on target therefore it is not an own goal. One theory is there was no deflection, and the keeper was completely fooled by the trajectory of the ball making him dive the opposite direction.
Saints almost scored two more after this, Smith and Magennis firing narrowly wide, but half time wouldn’t save Rovers, this was destined to be a thrashing.
A few minutes into the second half it was 3-0, a Mallan corner found the familiar head of MacKenzie and his powerful header sneaked in via possibly Loy/Rovers defender and Penska who helped it in on its way. This was beyond our wildest dreams, but it was to get even better for Saints.
Mallan, already on a double and playing some quite wonderful football picked the ball up outside Saints dugout, played two one-two’s and from thirty five yards hit a curling dipping shot into the top corner for the undoubted goal of the season, and the best I have ever seen from a Saints player.
The goal will forever be etched on my mind like a fingerprint. It was devastating and breath-taking at the same time. You can actually hear the crowd gasp on TV replays as it is in mid-air and heading for the net.
Saints would score again courtesy of Morgan after some brilliant team work that ended with a Mallan flick into his path, game over and 5-0. A hat-trick and two assists from Mallan in one of the biggest matches in the clubs history, this was one the greatest individual performance from a Saints player since Gerry Baker scored ten in a match in 1960, and it was an utter privilege to watch it.
To sum it up, with his goals and assists that day alone, Mallan contributed more to Saints league season in one match that Hardie, Shankland and Hutton did in 44 matches between them. This was the main difference between an Alex Rae side and a Jack Ross side. No passengers.
It was now crystal clear what Saints objective was; avoid defeat at Easter Road the following week and they were safe, and the unlikeliest of comebacks would be complete. The Saints supporters snapped up almost 2,000 tickets in the week leading up to the match, but I wonder how many the club would have shifted if they had an open allocation as Hibernian of course were receiving the Championship trophy that day, and the match was sold out days in advance, 20,000 people with both sets of fans wanting to party but only pressure on the away side.
True to his word, Mr Integrity, aka Neil Lennon played his full strength side unlike ten days previously against Raith Rovers, but this was all about Saints. If they wanted it enough surely they would get the result that mattered.
The match was cagey, Hibs started well and missed a sitter much to the relief of the Saints fans that could only mock Cummings in return, but it was a nervous reaction more than anything. Saints appeared to be managing the match, playing within themselves as they knew 0-0 was absolutely fine.
Half time came and went, still 0-0, Saints almost playing it like a tough away tie in the Cup, happy for a replay but willing to pile forward should they fall behind, and that that’s exactly what happened no more than a minute into the second half when Saints 2013 Cup hero John McGinn swung a ball into the box that Grant Holt knocked past O’Brien.
How would Saints react to this? The character of the side had been exceptional since February, and they had dug themselves out of a hole bigger than Lawrence Shankland’s shadow, but this was the real test. Forty four minutes to save themselves from the lottery of a play off.
We shouldn’t have worried, and as suspected the players game management skills were absolutely exceptional; we will do what is required to get over the line. Almost immediately they went at Hibs with the pace and intensity seen for the last two months, and straight away they had the Leith side pinned back. The supporters, who had made an incredible noise all day, sensed it as well, and within ten minutes Saints were level with a goal that summed up the comeback.
Demetriou started the move in his own six yard box, sweeping out a fine pass to Lewis Morgan a good seventy yards from Hibs goal, the young winger swivelled past a couple of Hibs players and with a thundering run forward that within seconds found Magennis on the edge of the opposition box, who in turn picked out Mallan, and panic descended in the Edinburgh backline.
The young Buddie danced past a couple of tackles now deep into the penalty area but before he could shoot, Rory Loy took over and placed a composed finish in at the far post for a magnificent equaliser right in front on the mass ranks of Saints supporters who lapped up the moment.
From here it was back to game management, but I honestly think if we had to win that day, the players would have delivered. The final whistle was greeted with complete elation in half of one stand, and from all in red on the park. News filtered through we had finished in seventh position on goal difference from Dumbarton and Raith Rovers. The attacking philosophy had well and truly paid off.
Again the fans and players embraced one another, and again these were scenes more typical of a promotion party than escaping relegation from a league Saints have been too good to play in for most their history, but this was different.
The reason this was different was simple, both in context from where we were as late as the morning of the 25th February, the day we won only our THIRD league match of the season, but undoubtedly there was pure relief in there also.
In the final fourteen games of the season once the transfer window shut, from Dumbarton away in February to that match at Easter Road, the team played multiple ‘must win’ matches, and some definitely ‘not lose’ also, and really only Kirkcaldy away in very testing circumstances was a let-down in terms of performance and result. In two of those matches, absolutely crucial ones at home to Ayr and Raith Rovers, they won by an aggregate score of 11-2.
This was not the normal scrape yourself out of relegation via playing defensive or time wasting football; we simply battered our way to safety playing outstanding attacking stuff at the same time, and with real pressure on the players. The fans came back, particularly away from home but we are only tapping into what is possible, the away support will easily double again next season should Jack Ross and the players continue this form.
When it was all said and done, we only escaped a play-off on goal difference, and that means we had some very fine margins during the campaign, and some unsung heroes. For example Ben Gordon’s equaliser at Palmerston the night we won for the first time turned out to be crucial, as did Scott Gallacher’s fine late save one on one with Mark Stewart a few days later when we beat Raith Rovers. Without these two examples and many others like it, who actually knows what could have happened?
The play offs are a dangerous set up for clubs with plenty to lose, as Raith Rovers discovered at the weekend, and I am delighted we avoided it, but what could relegation have meant for Saints and why were so relieved?
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Saints mount a serious promotion bid next season, even a title challenge. It is obvious that this could only be done if we weren’t relegated, however in the event we did go down, how soon would it before we would have been realistically challenging to get back in the Premiership again? Five years? Ten maybe?
Already it looks as though Stevie Mallan has played his last games for Saints. In the last eight matches of the season he scored seven times and set up another seven goals. Over the course of the league season he directly assisted twenty one goals going by my own records, he won’t be easily replaced but we have a much better chance of doing that in the Championship after that sensational end to the season as it made the whole country sit up and take notice. Suddenly, St Mirren Park is a happy place again and this attractive to other players.
I doubt Lewis Morgan would have stuck around in the third tier, or Gary MacKenzie or Stephen McGinn. We would have had practically no chance of signing permanently Cammy Smith, Billy O’Brien or Rory Loy. Would Stelios have fancied a crack at the Scottish seaside in January, swapping his home Mediterranean island for trips to Methil and Stranraer? I don’t know the definite answer but we have a very good chance next season of retaining these players and getting back to the Premiership, that in my opinion would have been years away had we went down.
When Jack Ross took over, we didn’t envisage him taking so long to turn the club back in the right direction but I don’t think as fans we appreciated how damaged the dressing room was, and how bad possibly the culture at the club was.
We had been fighting relegation from either the top or second flight for ten straight years, and losing as the cliché goes becomes a habit. It was perhaps ingrained in players and some good ones at that. The last two months of the season were the first time Mallan and Morgan played in a winning Saints side under a manager that utilised their attacking strengths, and just look how good they were. However, Mallan in particular required having his confidence rebuilt, and that took Jack Ross time.
Others at the club when Jack arrived didn’t want to be there, and others weren’t good enough, some even fitted into both categories and this had to be dealt with. No wonder it took twenty transfers in and out to fix the issue.
I am only speculating about next season, with my black and white tinted specs on of course. I do however honestly believe we will be challenging for promotion next season and optimism has returned to the club and the supporters. We are in a very good position to start next season from, but how far we can go will be dictated by who the manager brings in, but as he delivered possibly the most impressive transfer window in Saints history, he can be trusted to get on with the job.
As for finishing seventh in the league this season, we know it is not good enough. However, considering what Alex Rae left us with I think it can only be considered a successful conclusion to the campaign, but the greatest thing Jack Ross might do at Paisley is give the supporters a club they can love back, and that is something that should never be underestimated.