In this week’s Talking Football, Eric Nicolson and Ian Roache assess a resurgent St Johnstone, ponder Dundee United’s form dip and back Dundee to win at Palmerston.
Away draws aren’t enough to keep St Johnstone happy these days. A sign that expectations are rising in Perth?
EN: There’s a bit of that, no doubt. The Motherwell win transformed Saints from a team still predominantly focused on what was happening beneath them into one that could genuinely start looking at the top half. The big frustration, though, was they have been the better side against Ross County on three occasions in the league and drawn every time. They got away with not being ruthless enough at Ayr but were punished in Dingwall.
IR: It think it is a sign that expectations are rising and rightly so. It was still a decent point, though, and moved the unbeaten run up to five.
Tommy Wright has chopped and changed formations and team selections in the busy post-winter-break phase of the season. Wise?
EN: You can’t really argue with performances or results, so yes. The three strikers have been rotated to very good effect and will emerge from this busy spell of midweek football full of confidence. On the formation side of things, I think he’ll predominantly be a four at the back man over the remaining few months of the campaign.
IR: It’s all about the results and they have shown that Wright is right. I especially like the idea that the confidence is being spread around the frontmen.
Wright’s faith in Stevie May is being rewarded, isn’t it?
EN: Manager and player deserve equal credit on this one. Nobody gets Stevie May quite like Wright. This has been a slow-burn. Since he’s been away from McDiarmid Park, the way in which other coaches have utilised May has probably eaten away at his confidence. He’s now taking shots on that he wouldn’t have even as recently as a couple of months ago. I’m expecting a big end to the season for May.
IR: I agree with Eric that a lot of this has been about May really believing in himself again. He looks likely to go from strength to strength now and might have a few people backing him to be first goalscorer against Rangers.
What chance do you give Saints against Rangers on Sunday?
EN: A very good one. This is the most optimistic I’ve felt for them going into an Old Firm game in quite a while. They should take confidence from the second half display against Celtic, make sure they are switched on from the start and let the pressure grow on Rangers. And remember, Steven Gerrard’s men are now back in the Thursday-Sunday routine.
IR: Rangers can’t afford to drop any points and their fans might get a wee bit jittery and narky if Saints start well. It is still a big ask for the hosts to win the game but if they can do themselves justice and push the visitors hard then that will be a decent day for them.
What do you make of Dundee United’s form curve?
EN: It’s very hard to be critical. It’s not their fault that nobody is pushing them and I think that the huge lead they enjoy has played a part in the cutting edge not being as sharp as it was in 2019. There’s also no doubt that for a variety of reasons, the wide players aren’t having the same impact.
IR: They failed to score a single goal in their recent games against the two part-time teams in the division – Arbroath then Alloa – but nobody at Tannadice is panicking. Some excellent past play and results have earned them the cushion and I fancy the Tangerines to look more like their old selves against Inverness on Friday. It is also worth noting that they have been without key men like Nicky Clark, Paul McMullan and Louis Appere, all people who can open up defences.
Paul Watson was back in the team at Alloa. Does he stay there?
EN: I would pick him. Inverness carry an aerial threat and Watson is the best at heading a ball in the United team.
IR: He was one of the positives on a dreich night at the Indodrill. He provides good aerial cover at the back and is a goal threat from set-pieces at the other end. He certainly does not deserve to be dropped for the ICT clash.
Is Friday night the last big obstacle for United?
EN: Inverness aren’t thinking about catching them. They’re just trying to secure second place. As such, I think they’ll still see a draw as a good result. Don’t expect a ‘win or bust’ mentality. From United’s point of view, even a defeat doesn’t really change the big picture.
IR: The glass half-empty scenario has United losing on Friday and Inverness winning their two games in hand to cut the gap to nine points. If, like me, you like your glass to be full to the brim (it doesn’t have to be with beer) then the Tangerines will win and move 21 points ahead of ICT with just 11 matches to play. Indeed, a home victory will see the crystal ball coming out to predict when the champagne corks will be popping.
The line coming out of Gayfield is still all about wanting to make sure they stay in the league. Are you having it?
EN: No! Dick Campbell knows fine well that there is only one team they can’t catch, and he’ll be telling his players that in the dressing room. If you’re in the promotion play-off places with spring not far away, you’ve got a proper chance of staying there. I think they will probably fall just short but it’s an incredible effort to be in the race.
IR: A United win over ICT and another Gayfield glory day when Ayr visit on Saturday will push the Lichties into second spot. I repeat, second spot. Eric suggests they might fall short of the play-offs and that may happen but what fun they will have between now and the end of the campaign. Campbell also deserves a nomination for manager of the year.
Dundee are back in action at Palmerston. Was the Partick Thistle win enough to make you confident that there is a revival built on solid ground?
EN: There was something a bit different about that victory but the quality of Thistle has to be factored in. I’ve said for a while that Queens are poorer this season than they have been for a while. So, yes, that does make me confident of another Dundee win.
IR: Well, I predicted Dundee will finish as best of the rest behind United so I better stick with that. They were pretty good against an admittedly terrible Thistle side. Christophe Berra’s arrival, in particular, appears to have lifted the whole club and I fancy them to do the business at Palmerston.
Brechin City – discuss.
EN: We’re going to be writing and talking a lot about Brechin over the next few months, I suspect. Barring a football miracle, they are going to be in the dreaded pyramid play-off and the only good thing is Mark Wilson and his players have plenty of time to get their heads round that fact.
IR: Maybe so, Eric, but they are at least making a big effort when it comes to bringing in new players, with Alex Petkov from Hearts the latest arrival. It doesn’t seem too long ago (it isn’t) that I was covering City in the Championship. Glebe Park is a special place and Brechin a proud and historic club so I wish everyone well. I’ll certainly be looking out for every result of theirs from now until the end of the season.