St Mirren weathered a second half storm to grind out a pulsating 2-1 victory over Motherwell at St Mirren Park this evening. In Saints’ first trial of Friday night football two Steven Thompson goals before half time were enough to evade Bob McHugh’s consolation for ‘Well, as Saints recorded their second win in five league games to pull further from the relegation mire, and staked their claim to climb the SPL table.
Danny Lennon made two changes from the defeat at Celtic Park last week. Dougie Imrie was replaced by Lewis Guy, whilst David Barron slotted in at right-back in place of David van Zanten to make his first start of the season to form a basic 4-4-2 formation. Jim Goodwin retained his centre back position of which he fulfilled with panache last week.
The stage was set for a lively encounter under the floodlights. The rain had stopped, the air was mild and there was a sense of anticipation in the air in lieu of another exhilarating passing game between these two sides. The early part of the game did indeed witness the slick passing tempo we have come to expect, and you sensed that the result would hinge on who would win a very even midfield battle.
It was Saints who had the first meaningful chance through Jon Robertson. Shaun Hutchinson gifted away possession and Robertson surged towards goal, however skewed his shot wide of goal. The Steelmen attempted to stamp their own mark on the game, largely through the pace and unpredictability of wingers Chris Humphrey on the right and Jamie Murphy on the left. The ‘Well had several shots blocked by a stalwart home defence to leave them frustrated in their quest for their fifth straight league victory. There was no question that Motherwell had the upper hand in this midfield battle. Their excellent width sandwiched by the bite of Keith Lasley was enough to swing the game in Motherwell’s favour, although they could not take advantage of promising spells in possession.
Despite Motherwell looking the more comfortable on the ball, it was Saints who had the clearer-cut chances in the first half. They were counter-attacking with impressive penetration, and the one-touch link-up play on the attack was a joy to watch, especially from John McGinn who was outstanding once more. There’s no question the hosts looked more threatening from set pieces. From an array of several well-earned corner kicks, Kenny McLean had a shot deflected over the crossbar, before Jim Goodwin’s goal bound shot was cleared off the line by Lasley.
Former St Mirren hero Michael Higdon loves a goal or two against his previous club when these sides meet, and would have been an “anytime” goalscorer on many a betting slip this evening. However his towering close-range header was superbly clawed onto the post by Craig Samson to keep the score level, whilst boosting home confidence in the process.
McGinn was at the centre of Saints’ best chance of the game. His vivacious runs were joyous to watch in the extreme, and his pass to Lewis Guy allowed the Englishman to turn in the box and play in Thompson for the strike. As the home fans awaited a certain goal, Thompson was agonisingly denied by an outstretched leg of the Motherwell defender, and the chance was cleared.
A goal was sensed by the ravenous crowd. By those in black and white, claret and amber; this game’s deadlock was about to be broken. And on 39 minutes it was St Mirren who duly delivered in classy style. Marc McAusland’s brave slide on the far touchline not only kept the ball in play but played in Gary Teale down the right wing. Teale’s inward cross to Thompson was swept into the far corner of the net, from the same position he was denied just minutes previously.
In the second half St Mirren continued their attacking prowess, and looked comfortable in possession and classy in distribution. They looked eager to seal the victory, and McGinn was so unlucky not to bag his first senior goal after being teed up by Guy; the youngster’s face filled with abject disappointment when his shot was tipped round the post by Randolph.
Barring a Mayan apocalypse, Saints looked comfortable to hang onto the two goal lead. In fact in the early stages they looked keen to add to that tally as the wind was truly knocked out of the visitors’ sails. McLean was the next Buddie to go close with a curling free kick that zipped just wide of the right-hand post.
Motherwell were certainly not out of the game yet as they had two handball penalty appeals denied by Brines. The first incident looked accidental, the second had more gravitas yet luckily play raged on away from danger after no retribution from the official. However ‘Well were in full control now as Lennon attempted to close ranks and preserve the 2-0 scoreline. The largely ineffective Higdon was replaced by Bob McHugh mid-way through the second half. The Liverpudlian’s dissatisfaction at being substituted was almost as pleasing as the predicament his team found themselves in.
Around the 70 minute mark Lennon substituted Gary Teale for Lee Mair, resulting in a five-man defence consisting of three centre-backs. The originally composed defence were instantly thrown-off by this new system, as they failed to deal with a ball over the top of defence of which McHugh narrowly fizzed over the crossbar. Motherwell grew in belief, as Saints’ new defence faltered. It appeared a strange substitution as the “two banks of four” had been frustrating Motherwell with ease, and the Lanarkshire side looked lost. Now it was the home defence that had gone missing.
It appeared that it was only a matter of time before visitors scored and those fears were realised on 77 minutes. Nippy play from Henrik Ojaama down the left hand side played in McHugh, and the youngster thundered his shot off the bar and into the net to lay the foundations for an exciting comeback for the neutral, and an uncomfortable final fifteen minutes for Paisley contingent.
As likely as Motherwell’s first goal looked, their equaliser looked even more inevitable. The shaky defence was not helped with Paul Dummett being replaced by David van Zanten, who played in an unfamiliar left-back role. The ‘Well were unrelenting in the extreme, and any lingering festive cheer was replaced by unadulterated frustration in the home ranks. The defence somehow coped with the onslaught however, and it looked like the hosts might just hold on; the task was made slightly easier by Carey replacing Barron to allow Vanzy to revert to right-back. This proved vital as the Irishman was pivotal in halting the visitor’s main source of threat, Omar Daly, in the closing stages. The fourth official’s award of four added minutes caused incredulity in the stands as the stress of the festive season was compounded by the unnecessary extension to Motherwell’s revival. There must have been at least five minutes played, as one last free kick was floated into the area. The Saints support peered through their gloves as the domineering figure of Samson threw everything into leaping above the cluster of footballers to heroically punch clear, and that was enough to seal the much needed win.
The win was deserved in the extreme. The fight, determination, concentration and all round clinical finishing rightly merited the three points. However there are times this season where St Mirren have put in far improved performances and not reaped the right reward. There is no doubt that Saints received the rub of the green tonight in terms of the penalty claims, the break of the ball and poor finishing from the Lanarkshire men. Yet there are so many promising signs that this team are not worthy of their lowly position. I truly believe that this team are still capable of reaching the top six, and similar performances to tonight should give the boys a fighting chance. My Star Saint tonight was Steven Thompson. His goals aside, the drive to close down defenders and the desire to win every ball is exemplary beyond measure. It is a joy to watch players like Thompson, McGinn and McLean every week, and with McLean surely leaving the club in January it paves the way for another young midfielder to fill his shoes and make an even bigger mark on the SPL.