The match finished St Mirren 1-1 Kilmarnock. Yet no-one in attendance could put their finger on exactly why. A second half onslaught from the home side could not secure the desired three points after Kilmarnock’s Kris Boyd had firstly put his team ahead, before stupidly getting himself sent off. Gary Harkins’ first goal for his new club, scored against his previous employers, levelled the score and secured Saints’ first point of the season. Yet there will be a few sore heads on Sunday morning from those trying to surmise just how all three weren’t captured.
Three changes were made from the opening day shambles at Inverness. A recovered Kenny McLean and homecoming Conor Newton started in midfield, and a makeshift Darren McGregor started in place of the pre-match injured Jon Robertson at right back. Thomas Reilly and John McGinn warmed the bench while David van Zanten served his one match suspension.
A mixture of corporate greed and painfully weak SFA legislation had presented St Mirren with a free afternoon last weekend. In the opening stages it seemed to have done them the world of good. Some of the free-flowing play in the opening 20 minutes was a joy to behold, and completely unrecognisable from a fortnight ago. While Celtic’s reserves were “raising the profile of Scottish football”, it appears some extra work had been done on the training ground. The first chance materialised just minutes into the game. Teale’s cross floated delightfully to the back post, met by the powerful, downward header from Thompson, only for former Buddie Craig Samson to hold the effort brilliantly low to his right.
In the best attack of the game in which pass after pass was exchanged, runs darted and overlapped, McGowan’s beautiful chipped ball over the Kilmarnock defence was just inches too long for the onrushing McLean. Had he converted that, we’d have witnessed arguably the best goal of the season. Yet despite their profligacy, the crowd were seeing the Saints of recent past, and a deafening roar spurred their heroes on to better their current position.
It wasn’t all Saints, however. The visitors began to work their way into the match thanks to the wizardry of midfielder Rabiu Ibrahim. He epitomised the phrase, “free role” as the Nigerian covered every blade of grass, drawing markers out of position as he did so. His colleagues had two goal-bound efforts heroically blocked by McAusland and Grainger to keep the scores level. Barry Nicholson went even closer after curling his shot inches past David Cornell’s left-hand post when better options were available for the former Aberdeen midfielder.
And those were the main chances of the first 45 minutes. The latter 20 minutes of the first half weren’t as pleasing on the eye. It had become a cagey affair with both teams unable to break the other down in a classic stalemate. As the half time whistle blew, there were more than a few positives to chew over along with a steak and gravy pie.
As Craig Samson made his way to the South Stand post-interval, he received a generous reception from the home crowd, albeit with a few muffled boos, that will have meant a lot to our cup-winning keeper. With pleasantries exchanged, the football could resume.
If the season’s opening game had taught Saints anything, then it had surely prodded them into starting the second half well. Seemingly no such lesson had been learned as Kilmarnock forged ahead four minutes after the restart.
A promising Buddies attack broke down, and Ibrahim nicked the ball from McGowan’s clutches before bulleting upfield in a classic counter attacking move. He laid the ball off to the charging right back Sean Clohessy, who drove in a teasing ball for the ever-present Boyd to ram home from close range. In the week in which Danny Lennon has stipulated that St Mirren Park must become a fortress, the drawbridge was slowly being rolled down for the Ayrshire men to conquer.
Heffernan subsequently wasted a glorious chance to double his side’s lead. A deft Ibrahim chip into the area was wildly blazed over by the head of the Irishman.
The hosts required action. Possession, no matter how pleasing on the eye, was simply not going to rescue a point nor gain all three, and a conscious effort eventually saw them snatch back the stranglehold on this encounter. McLean played in McGowan, whose snap-shot curled inches wide of the left-hand post. McGowan and Thompson’s protests, and Samson’s cheeky grin, suggested the keeper had tipped the effort wide.
The midfielder then blitzed his way into the penalty area only to be shunted aside, to furious penalty claims from both McGowan and the home support. Referee John Beaton waved away the protests, yet would become a hero to the home contingent with half an hour left to play.
The pressure was now on the hosts to beat their diminished opponents. With 30 minutes left it was more than possible. Allan Johnston, the Kilmarnock manager, replaced stocky Heffernan with the more spritely, albeit less clinical, Mark Stewart to lead the line.
The equaliser sprung from the, “if at first you don’t succeed” adage. Thompson’s point-blank header was magnificently blocked by Samson before the ball was partially cleared. The cross back into the area was poked towards goal by Tesselaar and tipped wide by Samson, although the clearance may have been already going wide. The resultant corner was swung from the left, producing a good old-fashioned stramash. Gary Harkins pivoted and smashed the ball high into the net to the collective relief of St Mirren Park, and the obvious satisfaction of the former Rugby Park midfielder.
Harkins and Teale were the instigators of each attack. The former’s touches, vision and execution were simply majestic, and worthy of playing at a far higher level; whereas Teale just doesn’t appear to age whatsoever as he skinned defender after defender with as much pace as he ever had. Both players attempted chances of their own, too. Harkins’ tame shot was gathered by Samson, while the winger cut inside from the right, drove towards goal, but his shooting was miles off radar.
Some great play between Harkins and McGowan allowed the latter to cut inside, yet could only curl his strike inches wide of Samson’s left-hand post. McLean was substituted to a warm round of applause for his much improved performance, replaced by John McGinn. Minutes later Grainger appeared to have tweaked something, and was brought off as a precaution. Thomas Reilly too his place as Danny Lennon went for the jugular.
In between times Goodwin picked up a booking for upending an advancing Stewart; much to the fury of the away support, who rather strangely had the Irishman’s card marked for some perceived part in Boyd’s sending off.
Teale once again made light work of his two covering defenders and reached for the by-line. The teasing ball across goal yearned for a converting touch, yet none was forthcoming. His deadly counterpart Harkins’s attempt of one-upsmanship fared no better as his effort across goal somehow evaded the flock of bodies in the penalty area.
The full time whistle blew to a visibly disappointed home crowd. Thankfully there were no boos, as that would have been treasonous to the 11 players who simply gave everything. It could have been eleven different players to those who played at Inverness such as the difference in performance, when in fact there were only three new faces. There is much hope for the coming season after that showing. The defence looked slightly more composed, as did Cornell, who dealt with some poor back-passes expertly. Yet the regret was palpable; there will never be a better or more obvious chance to secure three points in the SPFL Premiership this season. The deficits are still visible – Thompson needs a strike partner. With a further two weeks to sort that, now isn’t the time to panic.