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St Johnstone in 2020 Q&A: Eric Nicolson on a legend leaving, a local hero returning and what’s ahead for Saints

Tommy Wright left St Johnstone in 2020.
Tommy Wright left St Johnstone in 2020.

St Johnstone supporters got their JFK moment in 2020 when Tommy Wright left the Perth club.

They didn’t need a global pandemic to make it a year they would never forget.

Eric Nicolson looks back on it.

Did St Johnstone exceed or fall short of expectations in 2020?

This one will need to be answered in two chunks. The first bit (the end of 2019/20) is an emphatic ‘yes’ to exceeding.

Although Saints’ form had picked up towards the end of last December they were still too close to the bottom of the table, and too error-prone, for comfort.

By early February they had sorted both out and were as good as safe.

The eventual award of a sixth-place finish may have a Covid-19 asterisk beside it but I’ve got little doubt they would have got there, or indeed fifth, had the season played out.

That’s the easy part.

The first few months of this season and last few months of the calendar year are far more complex.

There has, of course been a managerial transition, and a very significant one at that.

The most successful Saints boss ever, Tommy Wright, left the club and was replaced by his old assistant and playing legend, Callum Davidson.

The early indications are that Davidson has the makings of an excellent manager.

You don’t bed in a sophisticated formation and get the smallest squad in the Premiership to adapt to it quickly if you’re not a first class training-ground coach.

The fact that you never hear any ‘but Tommy did it that way’ murmurs coming out of the McDiarmid Park camp is a compliment in itself and Davidson has made some astute team selections and in-game changes.

Callum Davidson replaced Tommy Wright.

My August prediction for the end of the season was top of the bottom six or bottom of the top six.

That is still an achievable goal.

You have to say, though, that the Perth side have a far smaller points total than their performances merit and that is an enduring serious concern, as is the fact that there is no clear blue water between themselves and 11th and 12th and that old cutting-edge shortcomings are resurfacing.

In short, the players and manager are better than their precarious league status suggests.

What was the craziest moment covering St Johnstone?

Crazy? In 2020? Where to start!

The Covid-related stuff never gets real but a Kelty Hearts steward giving a fellow reporter a telling-off for throwing a ball back on to the pitch without sanitizing his hands first was a particularly bizarre moment.

One of these ‘in-play’ betting guys who thought Stevie May’s penalty at St Mirren had been saved and didn’t realise his mistake until 10 minutes later was a mean-spirited highlight as well (as was his reaction when the penny eventually dropped).

On the pure football front, I’ve seen Saints win a penalty shoot-out (it’s not that long ago they couldn’t convert one spot-kick in four games, let alone four in one) and Scott Tanser find the net with his right foot.

A magnificent cartoon drawn by Fitbatweets to illustrate the absurdity of no ‘away’ media being granted accreditation to report on Celtic v Saints would have to be the personal peak 2020 moment, though.


What was the biggest disappointment?

In the short time covering Davidson’s St Johnstone there have been a few sickeners to write about.

For a while it felt as if they were coming one after the other.

Losing late to Aberdeen at McDiarmid was an unjust result, particularly given the reason the game had to be rescheduled, but the stoppage time defeats to Hibs and Celtic raised or rather, lowered, the bar.

St Johnstone players were furious with ref Alan Muir.
Alan Muir left the Saints players furious.

And then came Alan Muir at Pittodrie.

A general feeling that Saints could/should be 10 points or more better off and sitting in the top six is the biggest disappointment, though, I’d say.

What was the best goal you saw for and against St Johnstone in 2020?

Against Saints – Borna Barisic’s free-kick at Ibrox was as pure a dead-ball strike as you’ll see but I’ll go for Motherwell’s recent goal at McDiarmid.

Yes, they got a bit lucky with the break of the ball from a half-clearance but it was a slick counter-attack and a superb first-time finish from Mark O’Hara.

For Saints – my number two is another game v Motherwell, Chris Kane’s dying moments winner last season.

It was a scruffy finish but Jason Kerr’s ‘ach, why not’ over-lapping run in the build-up sticks in the mind.

Number one is Ali McCann’s at Pittodrie.

The timing of the pass from Liam Craig was matched by the timing of the young Saints midfielder’s surge through the heart of the Aberdeen defence and it got the classy finish it deserved. McCann had played consistently well before then but this was the moment a real star was born.

Who was the best player for and against St Johnstone in 2020?

I’ve led myself nicely into that one.

The Saints player is undoubtedly McCann. His repertoire has broadened under Davidson and it was one of the high-points of 2020 to see him capped twice for Northern Ireland and play so well.

Special mentions have to be given to David Wotherspoon in his new forward role and Danny McNamara.

It’s very bad news for Saints that McNamara’s loan spell has been cut short because he made such an impressive impact. What a shame that Perth supporters never got to see him play.

Danny McNamara on debut.

Celtic and Rangers obviously have the best players and Barisic’s display at Ibrox in August was probably the best individual performance I’ve seen from a Saints opponent.

Leigh Griffiths turning a match after coming on late at McDiarmid in October, while everybody else in Hoops had been near anonymous, also stands out.

Callum Davidson must get this right in 2021…

He should stick with his five at the back – it suits the players.

Yes, there have been too many moments when individuals have been caught out at set-pieces but that would have happened in any system.

The big issues are up front.

I fear Guy Melamed isn’t going to be the right fit for Saints and it may well be a case of both parties agreeing it was a gamble that didn’t pay off.

If Davidson gets another shot at bringing in a striker this window, I’d opt for a target man-type who can bring others into the game and unsettle centre-backs rather than one in the fox in the box mould.

What would really help would be a consistent string of performances from Michael O’Halloran.

Michael O’Halloran.

His display in the Betfred Cup at Fir Park is a contender for the best individual performance from a Saints player this season, certainly in a creative sense, and more where that came from remains the most likely pathway up the table.

Prediction for St Johnstone:

I haven’t changed my mind about their league position for 2020/21, as above, but I do appreciate that Saints’ season is on a knife-edge.

Squad size and injuries are a constant worry but if they are reasonably fortunate on that front, they tighten up when they’re defending cross balls and they start finding themselves on the right side of one-goal games then they will be comfortably safe.

And Davidson may even achieve the same league finish in his first campaign in charge that Wright had in his last.

let’s not forget, they have a realistic chance of winning the second national cup in the club’s history.

I think the Betfred Cup semi against Hibs is a 50-50 match-up. All the pressure in on Jack Ross’s side after their Scottish Cup flop.

Would I be shocked if Saints went and won the whole thing? Not at all. Jason Kerr could be lifting a trophy less than two months into the new year – what a thought that is.