Draw a box for Ali McCann and he’ll put a big tick in it.
Challenge after challenge gets set for the young St Johnstone midfielder and each one is accepted and passed with his characteristic quiet authority.
As good as he was in his breakthrough year in the Premiership, McCann will have known that many a one season wonder has been unable to back it up, even a player whose performance level was as consistent as his had been in 2019/20. The surprise factor is no longer your friend and gnarled senior pros can find ways to negate your strengths.
Not only did he have to re-establish himself after the long coronavirus lay-off, he also had to do it under a new manager who had identified a more disciplined role for him.
The lung-bursting runs beyond the striker, and the goals, had to be sacrificed to a large extent but McCann’s influence on the team was subtly increased.
Any fears of a second season syndrome were convincingly banished.
The next question was – how will he respond to being dropped from the starting line-up (against Dundee United) for the first time under Callum Davidson when fully fit as the Perth boss decided the time was right to give Craig Bryson a first league start?
The next answer was – by putting in an outstanding performance the match after (against Kilmarnock).
Northern Irish, not to mention Austrian and Romanian, eyes were opened to the 20-year-old’s abilities when he started the last two Nations League group games and shone in both.
And after swapping the green of his country for the blue of his club came the weekend examination, which was making sure his return game with Saints against Motherwell was a better one than on the last occasion he came back from an international camp and was relatively ineffective at Hamilton Accies.
He was the best midfielder on the pitch.
There are so many impressive aspects to McCann’s game but doing the simple things very, very well is probably the main one.
The understated man is an understated footballer, the beauty of displays like Saturday’s being rooted in their simplicity
If a six-yard first-touch pass is the best one for his team, that’s what he’ll play. If there is an opportunity to press high and turn over possession in a dangerous area, he senses it and reacts quicker than anyone. And if there’s a cynical yellow card to be taken for the team late on, he’ll do that too.
The first two examples were seen in the build-up to the Stevie May penalty award that earned Saints a comeback draw. The last one drew admiring nods from old Press box cynics who, like McCann, could see Davidson’s men about to get out-numbered on the type of counter-attack that had led to Motherwell’s opening goal.
There are flashier midfielders of his age in the Scottish Premiership but I’ve not seen one with a better football brain.
The changing of the guard at Northern Ireland isn’t a manufactured headline. The similarities between McCann and their most-capped player ever, Steven Davis, are glaring.
Footballers always talk about learning and evolving when they get exposed to the international environment but with McCann, you can truly see it happening.
He doesn’t need to be taught how to hit a 50-yard diagonal (though you’ll only see him try an extravagant switch of play if it’s the right option, rather than to show-off his passing repertoire). It’s the habits of the very best, rather than the technique, that he wants to absorb.
“You pick up day to day things in training,” he said. “How the players handle themselves, how they never slack off.
“Just being in and around people like that is brilliant. They helped me whenever they could.
“The more bits of knowledge you can pick up, the better. It can only benefit you going forward.
“It wasn’t a case of going up to them to ask questions. It’s about seeing how they go about things.
“If I can have a career that gets anywhere near to the likes of Steven Davis, then I’ll be very happy.”
McCann added: “It was amazing just to be involved in the set-up in the first place. And then to be told I was starting in Austria was surreal.
“I just treated them like I would normal games with St Johnstone and hopefully gave a good account of myself. I’m still buzzing to be honest.
“There are no more internationals until March so hopefully I can play well here and get picked again for those matches when they come around.”
Saints could do with a few other players to be as reliable with their decision-making.
They were the controlling force for large spells of this contest but too often the wrong run was made or the wrong pass chosen. A prime example was early in the game when May attempted a high tariff reverse through-ball to David Wotherspoon when the obvious one to Danny McNamara outside him should have been taken.
The inter-play that saw May clipped by Bevis Mugabi, who had been deceived by the quality of Wotherspoon’s stab forward and the striker’s run on his blindside, showed that good things, like penalty-kicks and goals, will happen when you get it right.
McCann struck the right tone with his post-match assessment.
“It was a bit annoying not to win because we had chances,” he said. “We need to focus on our quality in the final third.
“A draw isn’t the worst result after you’ve gone 1-0 down, though.”
The second of Saints’ three games in a week is at Easter Road tomorrow night. It was there last August that he made his second league start of last season and came to everyone’s attention with the maturity of his football.
We won’t fear them and we’ll be looking to go one better and win this time.
“I’ve never been back since,” he said. “We were due to play Hibs at Easter Road when the season got stopped for Covid.
“I’ve got good memories of playing there. The team did well and Jason (Kerr) scored a last minute equaliser.
“We won’t fear them and we’ll be looking to go one better and win this time.”
The biggest worry following the Motherwell match won’t be the loss of points, it will be the health of Murray Davidson.
The midfielder hit the ground awkwardly after winning a header in midfield and was stretchered off.
“It didn’t look great but the physio said he was up and talking,” said McCann. “Which is good news. Hopefully it isn’t serious and he’s back soon.”
On McCann’s performance, Callum Davidson said: “Ali’s had the accolades with Northern Ireland and it’s great that he can come back and show the character he did today. He was the one getting on the ball and trying to do things. I thought he was excellent.”
With a brighter spotlight comes greater media attention, of course, and Saints’ prized asset admitted he is far more comfortable with a ball at his feet than a microphone under his nose.
“There were more interviews after the Northern Ireland games,” he said. “I’m not great at them – I just throw as many clichés out as I can! A typical footballer, I suppose.”
A typical footballer in that regard, perhaps, but that is where the ordinary begins and ends with Ali McCann.