In this week’s Talking Football, Eric Nicolson and Ian Roache look into St Johnstone’s pre-Christmas revival, pick a date for Dundee United’s title coronation and discuss why even a Dundee win didn’t make some fans happy.
Assess for us the significance of St Johnstone’s first away win of the calendar year?
EN: Firstly, it makes you think the rest of the potential relegation candidates may regret not cutting Saints adrift while they were toiling to pick up points on the road. In the here and now, though, they are starting to look like a team that shouldn’t be near the bottom of the table. They didn’t give Hearts a single clear-cut chance on Saturday, were tight at the back and pacey and dangerous in attack. When Saints beat Hearts last time it felt like that had more to do with the poor quality of their opponents. Not on Saturday.
IR: That was definitely a nice wee pre-Christmas present for the Saints supporters. I had the feeling they would get something at Tynecastle because of the huge pressure that would be on the home side and their new gaffer Daniel Stendel. It was a wonderful result for them and a worrying one for Hearts. It was embarrassing for the Perth club to have to go all the way back to Dens Park last December 29 to find their previous away league win and St Johnstone will now be spared meddlesome journalists harking back to it on what would have been the anniversary.
That’s two clean-sheets in a row. What has changed?
EN: It has to be the change at left-back and centre-half. Callum Booth has been outstanding and exemplifies the ‘defender first’ mentality Tommy Wright has wanted to see. In hindsight, he probably should have been given his chance earlier. And not only has Liam Gordon been a strong voice and aerial presence at centre-back, he has also contributed to Jason Kerr and Anthony Ralston raising their game.
IR: In hindsight, that goalless away draw at Kilmarnock was an even better result than it looked at the time. It provided the platform for the trip to Gorgie. Now the hope is that the confidence can keep flowing through the defence.
So should Saints fans be getting excited about the next three games?
EN: Cautiously, yes. I know football managers hate to look further ahead than their next match but we’re allowed to. The Ross County game is less important but if Saints can beat St Mirren and Hamilton then they’ll have a bit of daylight between them and the bottom. Nine points and they would even have Kilmarnock in their sights. Confidence should be soaring for the battle of the Saints on Saturday.
IR: I don’t imagine they will be looking too far ahead. It will all be about the Buddies at McDiarmid this weekend. What you need is cautious but steady progress. Don’t get me wrong, I fancy them to beat the Paisley team but they will have to work hard for the points.
Dundee United are becoming relentlessly (and impressively) boring for Talking Football. It’s clearly not an ‘if’ they win the title now, so when will it happen and by how many points?
EN: Let’s put it this way, they’re not going to drag it out until the second last game of the season at Dens to book-end the Doon Derby. I can only see the 13-point gap increasing to about 18 and that means the title will be clinched at Gayfield on March 27 (without Lawrence Shankland who will have just scored the winner for Scotland against Israel and be preparing for the play-off final in Oslo).
IR: Former US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Never be bored and you will never be boring.” I agree. After three years of hurt covering United in the Championship, I certainly don’t find a 13-point lead or eight-game winning streak boring. In particular, nine points out of their set of three against Alloa, Morton and Arbroath will have been hugely satisfying. They now look to be embracing tough away games almost – but not quite – as much as fixtures at fortress Tannadice.
Should United even bother signing anybody in January?
EN: I’m tempted to say no but, unless Adrian Sporle is now considered reliable cover for Jamie Robson, recruiting another full-back for the squad wouldn’t be the worst idea.
IR: Manager Robbie Neilson’s mantra is “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” so I can’t see the Tannadice revolving door being used too often next month. My prediction would be one or, at a push, two new arrivals.
Only Dundee can be booed off by some of their fans after ending a four-game winless run?!
EN: Let’s put it down to nerves being shredded! The players certainly know how to make life difficult for themselves though, don’t they? Now that the dust has settled, any win against an in-form Dunfermline side is a very good one. And the fact that the goals are starting to flow is another big positive.
IR: It was even worse than that, with some boos ringing out when Dundee were 4-1 up! I have often defended the right of supporters to vent their frustration and dissatisfaction but that is taking it too far. Of course the team wobbled and looked vulnerable but they held on. We should at least acknowledge that it was a fine win against an in-form Pars team.
What did you make of the team James McPake picked?
EN: It’s not far away from their best eleven. Jordan Marshall returning at left-back is very important. If everybody is fit, I’d say ‘same again’ at Firhill on Saturday.
IR: It is encouraging to see both Kane Hemmings and Danny Johnson in the team and scoring. Marshall was welcomed back from injury by everyone at the club and should help settle the backline. There are a few knocks to deal with but, like Eric, I predict the same players to be starting against the Jags.
Neither Dundee nor Thistle can be relied on to win a game can they?
EN: I don’t think any teams barring Dundee United can in this league. You’d avoid the Championship if football coupons are your thing. I haven’t seen Thistle play this season but from what I’ve heard Ian McCall is getting as much out of a poor group as he possibly could. This is a match I expect Dundee to win, particularly as Hemmings is now hitting form.
IR: Well, the Dark Blues did it against the Pars and my hope is that they keep it going against Partick. That will give everyone at the club a lift ahead of the derby at Tannadice on the 27th. Thistle could be dangerous, though, having beaten both Queen of the South and Inverness in their last couple of matches.