Manager Danny Lennon decided on four changes from the 2-2 Boxing Day clash at Inverness. Dougie Imrie, Graham Carey, Lee Mair and David Barron started on the bench; Lewis Guyreclaimed his starting place, Paul Dummet returned from injury and Jim Goodwin and Marc McAusland had servedtheir suspensions to form a 4-4-2 formation.
This game had everything. Goals, fouls, cards, thrills, spills, slips, slides and drama. As the late Frank Carson would have put it, it was a cracker. The city that gave us Jam, Jute and Journalism gifted us entertainment, passion and joy as the Buddies extended their recent good run to only one defeat in eight matches. St Mirren started extremely brightly on the attack. Paul McGowan looked effortless in possession, Thompson held every single ball distributed to him, whilst John McGinn once again displayed his defensive attributes as well as his attacking prowess by consistently regaining possession from the United rearguard.
Yet they looked extremely sloppy in defence, consistently gifting the ball to the hosts in dangerous areas; fortunately United were wasteful in the aftermath of the St Mirren defence’s belated festive generosity. More success was enjoyed further up the park, and Saints engineered the first meaningful chance just a few minutes into the match. Gary Teale’s powerful 25-yard free kick was bound for the bottom corner until the palms ofRadoslaw Cierzniak batted the ball away for a corner kick.
United looked increasingly, and dare I say it solely, dangerous from balls played into the St Mirren penalty area. Gavin Gunning aimed to replicate his goal on Boxing Day at home to St Johnstone as he fired a header over early in the match. Craig Samson was at pains to deny him further minutes later.
Willo Flood’s corner was met by Gunning at the back post yet the defender’s header was clawed away by Samson, and the “Arabs” could not capitalise from the rebound. Johnny Russell flashed a header wide of goal soon after (from another ball into the box) and the visitors breathed once more.
Dundee United perhaps looked the more ominous, although their missed chances counted for zero when Paul Dummetnotched his second goal in a black and white jersey after 15 minutes. Gary Teale picked up the ball on the right wing, went toe-to-toe with Barry Douglas leaving the defender on his rear end, skipped by him and played a delicious ball across the face of goal for Dummet to tap home from a yard out.
The subdued celebration suggested the ball had ricocheted off his ankle much to the Geordie’s surprise, yet the celebrations in the Fair Play Stand were far from passive as Saints took a deserved lead.
Seconds after the restart Johnny Russell dragged a shot inches wide of Samson’s left-hand post to remind the travelling Buddies that the job was far from over. Paul Dummett almost conceded a penalty when he dived in late on Russell inside the penalty area, yet to the striker’s credit he stayed on his feet but preceded to run the ball over the bye-line for a goal kick. Barry Douglas’ free kick was then easily dealt with by Samson, whilst Teale McGowan and McGinn owned the midfield and Saints pushed for a second goal. A goal which so nearly arrived when Thompson’s snap-shot curled just wide of goal following Teale’s cross. He was incredulous just minutes later when Teale’s corner was met by a bullet header, yet a defensive block denied the Houston lad on the goal line.
There was little question that Saints’ style was easier on the eye. On a smooth but boggy surface the ball travelled well yetat times the players resembled Bambi’s first steps as their studs yielded to the mud beneath them. However United looked consistently likely to score from every corner, cross and free kick that they fired into the penalty area. It was no surprise when such a tactic teed up the equaliser after 42 minutes. Jon Daly attempted to convert a high cross whenDummett wrapped both arms around the Irishman and felled him to the floor. Referee Euan Norris immediately pointed the spot, whilst Daly sent Samson the wrong way and slotted the ball into the bottom right-hand corner to equalise.
A draw at the break was perhaps fair, but what followed on the stroke of half time certainly fell into the “harsh” category. Brimming with confidence following the recent goal, the omnipresent Stuart Armstrong simply was not closed down quickly enough, and the youngster fired the ball towards goal. The swerve in the shot foxed Samson, and whilst shifting his body weight he appeared to slip in the mud and the ball bobbled into the far corner of the net unopposed to gift the hosts a fortunate lead at the interval.
The next goal was crucial. A third United goal would have floored Saints so composure and patience were pivotal to a possible retaliation. It was slightly ironic the Terriers didn’t display either of those attributes in the foreword to the Buddies’ equaliser. Five minutes after the restart Keith Watson played a ball straight to Lewis Guy, rebounding off the Englishman’s chest into the path of Thompson.
Composure overcame the striker as he buried his shot under the Polish goalkeeper to restore parity.
The swirling rain certainly did not improve the texture of the pitch, but instead made for a phenomenal midfield spectacle. Throughout the second half Saints threw themselves into every challenge going. They were first to most balls and were as hungry as I’ve ever seen a St Mirren side. As the sliding tackles rained in we saw a combination of old football and new, and despite the gritty conditions Saints’ flowing football was still allowed to prosper in tandem with the high-balls to Thompson up front whilst the midfield and defence behind him muddied their shorts to scrap for every ball.
There were plenty of goals up for grabs in this battle; the question was for whom they would fall to. Gary Tealeanswered that question when the winger assisted MarcMcAusland for goal number three on 60 minutes. Saints won a free kick on the right hand side of the pitch allowing Tealeto administer his trademark delivery. The ball wasn’t cleared and first to react was McAusland, who fired high into the roof of the net from six yards to restore the lead.
Saints had thrown away one lead already and were determined not to dispose of another. However they nearly did just that when Michael Gardyne, an early substitute for the injuredWillo Flood, scooped his shot high over the bar when unchallenged from twelve yards.
The end-to-end football was perhaps mediated by bizarre officiating as the afternoon descended into the “Euan Norrisguessing game” while the official appeared more clueless with each passing decision. Most of these, it has to be said, in favour of St Mirren. It has been a long time since I’vewitnessed fans abusing a referee that has just awarded their own team a free kick. But Norris was to endear himself further to the Buddies faithful when he sent off Brian McLean for a high lunge on John McGinn after 70 minutes.
The script was written for Saints to tie the game up, to seal a second win in three matches and to continue their unbeatenTannadice record under Danny Lennon. What hadn’t been written was for David van Zanten to do just that. Kind Buddies have pledged money to the Yorkhill children’s hospital for every goal that Vanzy scores, and the jovial Dutchman agreed to undertake a stellar forfeit should he fail to score before the season’s end. It involves a “Mankini” but we’ll forgo the mental image there.
Steven Thompson and Jon Robertson left the pitch for SamParkin and Graham Carey respectively as Lennon looked to retain possession up front and to give the team some stability in defence as Robertson appeared to be struggling with a knock in the remaining minutes.
As we have learned to know and love, Saints never make it easy on themselves. As the Tannadice faithful left in their droves and the fourth official readied the board, McGowan conceded a free kick 25 yards from goal. Barry Douglas expertly dispatched the kick into the top left corner to give United a fighting chance, and left the travelling support’s nerves in tatters. United launched several high balls into the box to claim a last-equaliser but the Paisley defence stoodfirm to seal a superb win, and in doing so boosted the Buddies to within three points of the coveted top six.