There were few signs of the dreaded Cup euphoria comedown this evening as a toiling St Mirren side displayed incredible fortitude to defeat Inverness Caledonian Thistle at St Mirren Park. The resolute 2-1 victory signalled Saints’ first ever victory over their Highland foes at the new stadium, against arguably their strongest ever team as they occupied a lofty second position going into this game.
Kenny McLean made a welcome return from a short-term knee injury to slot into centre-midfield, albeit at the unfortunate expense of the enthralling John McGinn who would make his mark at a later stage.
The game started brightly as St Mirren passed the ball around with ease, very much taking control of the game and exploiting the wealth of space open to them. Wingbacks van Zanten and Carey were excellent in providing options in width whilst Conor Newton looks ever more the accomplished defensive midfielder with clean, conservative tackling. It was an unfamiliar Inverness performance as their usual flair-filled attacks were sparse and chances minimal. Owen Tudor-Jones did force Craig Samson into a superb save from 25 yards in the early stages however. The top corner-bound free kick was excellently tipped over as Caley failed to build on their early threat.
The onus was now on the hosts to exert their dominance and expand on Sunday’s heroics. Several chances were passed up before the opening goal. Firstly Thompson’s curling effort was daringly blocked by the Inverness rearguard before the ball broke to Newton – only to scuff his shot into the grateful hands of Antonio Reguero. Kenny McLean returned to first team action with a solid first half performance, and a beautiful passage of skill from the youngster engineered space to shoot from the edge of the box. Yet again Reguero was equal to the task and batted the ball clear. Teale and Carey threatened the Inverness goal with some menacing corner kicks; likewise Marc McAusland who was unfortunate to flash two headers wide of goal from their excellent deliveries.
Try as they might the hosts just could not offer a second goal before half time. A teasing ball across the face of goal from Teale was cleared just as Thompson waited to pounce. The latter was later unlucky as he volleyed Carey’s deep curling ball firmly into Reguero’s midriff.
With the visitors in forgiving mood their equaliser was a surprise to many, and infuriating given its unwelcome mix of controversy and horrendous timing. Richie Foran received Billy McKay’s dinked ball over the Saints back-line as he fended off Newton’s advances. It was all too easy to forage for a penalty and the Irishman’s tumble warranted the penalty from referee Alan Muir. McKay dispatched the kick with aplomb as the subsequent half time whistle ensured boos very much in Muir’s direction.
The penalty award guaranteed an incredibly disappointing half time interval. Wasted chances were rued in light of the late equaliser, yet no-one in the half time discussions could fault the team’s character; after all confidence was sky-high. Besides, a Goncalves opener and a harsh equaliser right on half time? The scene looked reassuringly familiar...
McAusland was substituted by Lee Mair at the break, presumably as a precautionary measure given the centre-back’s exemplary first-half shift. The sharp increase in Highland tempo suggested the Terry Butcher hairdryer treatment at the break. Inverness were suddenly in full control of this match and the roles reversed; Saints were hassled into errors whilst Caley’s movement was unplayable at times. The pace and delivery of Aaron Doran in particular was incredible and somehow failed to merit a goal. Graham Shinnie went close with a dipping free kick over the bar in a spell where St Mirren suffered a real possession drought. Negligible passing sequences were cut short either by error or unremitting closure from an instantaneously hungrier opposition; an opposition who looked the more likely to snatch a deserved winner.
However all was not lost. The first of two game-changing substitutions occurred when Goncalves made way for Lewis Guy. Paul McGowan fired well over the bar from 25 yards before a fading McLean made way for John McGinn. The parameters of the game had changed. St Mirren required speed, stamina and determination to unsettle the comfortable Caley Jags. Inspired tactics from Danny Lennon performed that task excellently as the game opened up in his favour. Saints were ticking once again, and Carey’s cross-come-shot dipped just over the bar as the crowd sensed a reply.
That reply although possible looked increasingly unlikely as Inverness remained steadfast. However when you have a striker such as Steven Thompson in your armoury then you might just witness something special. And special it was when with less than ten minutes remaining, the unstoppable forward sealed a second successive win in just four days. Newton floated a hopeful cross high into the area, and the connecting header powered across Reguero’s goal and crawled over the line via the post for Thompson’s seventh goal in an impressive seven games.
With their tails up and the game carved open further, St Mirren sought the killer strike. It very nearly arrived when McGinn surged into the penalty area following Carey’s lay-off. The 18 year-old received a nudge in the back, admirably stayed on his feet before his cross-goal pass was cleared. Newton picked up the clearance outside the box, thundering a strike towards goal that was firmly beaten away once more by Reguero.
2-1 the game finished; a real testament to the side’s mental and physical resolve following Sunday’s heroics. Many expected an adrenaline loss in blustery conditions at a muted St Mirren Park, but apart from a brief second half lull the fans witnessed a cumbersome yet hardy performance that brings the welcome sight of the top six into view. A draw would definitely have reflected the match in a fairer light however winning ugly is the mark of any successful side. So it’s probably fair to say that every Buddie will take a few hideous victories along the long and winding road to eventual success.