It might not have been a Christmas classic of a football match but St Johnstone’s Boxing Day win against Hamilton Accies could be the decisive moment of the season for the Perth men.
For the first time in the campaign Saints have opened up clear blue water between themselves and the bottom of the Premiership table.
And it isn’t just the seven-point gap to crisis club Hearts that makes for pleasant viewing. The McDiarmd Park men are also now four points above the team they defeated 1-0 in Lanarkshire.
Ali McCann couldn’t have picked a better time to score his first goal for Saints.
The young midfielder found the net from point blank range on 81 minutes to edge a scrappy game.
The body of work from Saints in recent times is growing increasingly impressive. That’s four clean sheets in a row, four unbeaten and only two defeats in their last nine fixtures.
There was some significant tinkering with his team from Tommy Wright. The Perth boss brought Chris Kane and Stevie May back into the starting line-up along with David Wotherspoon and McCann.
The four men benched were Matty Kennedy, Callum Hendry, Jason Holt and Drey Wright.
There was an encouraging early sign that the new combination up front might gel.
Five minutes in May crossed for Kane, whose header from the penalty spot was a powerful one but didn’t find the target.
Saints as a team started pretty well, looking the stronger side in the opening exchanges, albeit without carving out a chance likely to break the deadlock.
Their best move in that time was one down the left, started by Wotherspoon. He fed Callum Booth after controlling the ball on his chest in midfield and the left-back’s cross nearly picked out Michael O’Halloran at the back post.
The nearest Accies came to scoring a goal in the first half – not near at all in honesty – was a low George Oakley shot dragged past Zander Clark’s right hand post.
They had another effort from even further out, Mickel Miller this time, but again Clark wasn’t troubled.
They might not have come close to scoring but Accies were now enjoying more of the ball and Saints attacks were on the break rather than sustained as half-time drew closer.
There was a dangerous counter on 41 minutes however. After they moved quickly from one box to the other, a May shot was deflected past the post.
Rarely had a player got behind either defence in the first half but Anthony Ralston managed to do it on the overlap seconds after the restart. The full-back’s cross from the byeline was a good one into the danger area but the Accies centre-backs did their job.
Saints fans want to see Stevie May getting more shots away and would have been encouraged to see him trying his luck from distance after cutting in from the left. Unfortunately he was off balance with his effort on the angle and sliced it well wide.
Murray Davidson chopped down Miller 20 yards from goal just before the hour mark, earning himself a yellow card and Accies a dangerous shooting position. Thankfully for the midfielder, Will Collar hit the free-kick straight into the wall.
Brian Rice was the first manager to make a change on 66 minutes, replacing David Moyo with Steve Davies. A minute later Saints also made a change – Wright for O’Halloran.
The ball crossed the Accies line on 69 minutes but there was no danger of it being a goal. The foul from Kane as keeper Luke Southwood gathered a cross was the easiest one referee Gavin Duncan had to award all afternoon.
The second Saints substitution came on 74 minutes when Hendry replaced May.
Seconds after coming on, the supersub the last time these teams met controlled the ball well in the box and shouted for a penalty when his shot appeared to strike the arm of Sam Stubbs. The referee waved play on, though.
With this game looking like going the same way as the St Mirren match that preceded it, Saints made the breakthrough on 81 minutes.
Hendry was the creator on the right and McCann couldn’t miss from close range.
One nearly became two but Gordon couldn’t keep a back post header on target.
Saints weren’t troubled in the dying minutes and a crucial win was secured.
Hamilton – Southwood, McGowan, McMann, Collar (Hunt 80), Oakley (Alston 75), Miller, Gogic, Moyo (Davies 66), Easton, Martin, Stubbs. Subs not used – Fon Williams, Cunningham, Winter, Hamilton.
St Johnstone – Clark, Davidson, Kane (Tanser 85), Wotherspoon, May (May 74), Kerr, O’Halloran (Wright 67), McCann, Ralston, Gordon, Booth. Subs not used – Parish, Duffy, Holt, Kennedy.
Referee – Gavin Duncan.
Attendance – 1,536.