It’s now 11 seasons since Derek McInnes took St Johnstone out of the Championship and, in that time, they have never looked in danger of returning there. Until now. After a disastrous BetFred Cup group stage, Saints failed to win any of their first 10 league fixtures.
Consecutive victories over Hamilton Accies and Hearts last month provided a glimmer of hope, as did the previous weekend’s gutsy fightback to earn a draw against Aberdeen with nine men. However, the fear is that Saturday’s dire display is a truer reflection of the current squad’s ability.
Manager Tommy Wright will forever be etched into the club’s folklore following that Scottish Cup triumph in 2014 but he is, unfairly, the focal point for criticism from supporters when it comes to finding reasons for the club propping up the Premiership.
They would be better directing their fire at the boardroom. Saints admittedly posted a loss of £150,000 in their annual accounts to May 2019 but that statement also revealed that the club has almost £2m in the bank.
Livingston centre-back Declan Gallagher had earlier been identified by Wright as the seasoned professional to organise and bolster his defence. He was coming out of contract at the Tony Macaroni Arena and no fee would be involved.
However, to Wright’s frustration, the 28-year-old was allowed to join Motherwell instead and he has also gone on to represent Scotland twice in the current campaign. How Saints could have done with him here.
Their defending was weak and often non-existent at all four home goals. Devante Cole headed the opener from a Jermaine Hylton cross and Peter Hartley nodded home the second from a Liam Polworth corner. Jake Carroll scored from the rebound when Gallagher’s header from another Polworth corner struck the post and substitute Christy Manzinga scored on his debut, stroking the ball behind Zander Clark after being set up by Mark O’Hara.
In spite of the fact Motherwell were, by manager Stephen Robinson’s admission, not at their best, they could have had more goals because Saints were at their worst. More worryingly, maybe this is the best they can be.
They have, after all, the worst goal difference in the top flight. None of their rivals have conceded more goals and only second-bottom St Mirren have scored fewer. Wright tried a positive formation at Fir Park but his twin strikers (Chris Kane and Stevie May) have scored just three goals between them in their last 41 league appearances and neither came close here.
Another major concern is their appalling away record. They have failed to win any of their 18 matches on the road during 2019 (losing 13 of them) and face Kilmarnock at Rugby Park on Wednesday. Only 281 Saints supporters travelled to Lanarkshire at the weekend: how many will be in Ayrshire?
Club captain Jason Kerr admitted that there was, quite literally, no case for the defence.
“It’s not good enough,” said the 22-year-old. “We lost four terrible goals, with three of them from set-pieces. We’re just not winning the first header – there were seven balls into our box and we didn’t win one of them.
“The gaffer said we keep making the same mistakes and we have to focus on that and try not to do it again. It’s happening every week and, as a team, we need to cut them out. When we concede the first goal, you feel as though they’re going to score another one because we always lose the first ball – it’s not a good combination.
“Against Hearts, we put in a really good performance and then fell down against Hibs next game. It was the same here – following last weekend’s draw against Aberdeen [with nine men] and then this. There’s no consistency in our game and we need to make it better.
“It’s early in the season but it’s not looking good with the way we’re defending right now. It’s down to us to make it happen. It would be good to get an experienced player into the team, especially in the defence because we have a young back four.
“I’m not making excuses, though. Some of the goals we’re losing aren’t down to inexperience – they’re down to poor defending and we need to cut that out. Still, an experienced head would be good.”
Kerr also hopes that Wright can find a cure for their travel sickness this week.
“Off the back of a defeat like that, you just want to get on to the pitch and make it right and we’ll hope to do that against Kilmarnock on Wednesday,” said Kerr.
“We need to get ourselves up the table. You can’t stay down there for too long because, if you keep losing games, we’ll get cut adrift from the pack and that’s not good.”