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St Johnstone analysis: Saints still have one big flaw but Zander Clark remains a big asset

Zander Clark in action against Ross County.
Zander Clark in action against Ross County.

During a season in which flaws in the St Johnstone team have been scrawled in ink rather than lightly jotted down in pencil, it has been reassuring how quickly any suggestion of a goalkeeping problem was erased.

Defenders not dealing with crosses and thereafter failing to react to loose balls and loitering dangermen has become endemic, and was again at the root of the goal Saints conceded in Dingwall at the weekend.

So too strikers, or anybody else outfield in fact, toiling to score from open play.

In those circumstances, the last thing Callum Davidson needed was fragility between the posts becoming an issue.

Those of us who have seen most of Zander Clark’s 150 appearances were confident that a match to forget against Rangers would be an aberration, and so it has proved.

Clark has been one of the best Premiership keepers over the last few seasons – averaging almost exactly one clean-sheet in every three games.

Never let it be forgotten that Saints cup-winning legend and Northern Ireland international Alan Mannus was still close to his very peak when Tommy Wright felt he could hold the younger man back no longer and make the transition from duelling number ones to Clark being given stand-alone status.

Key to that century-and-a-half of consistency has been making sure off-days like the one before Christmas, when he let two poor goals in against the runaway league leaders, are fleeting.

Clark’s performance in the subsequent fixture at Pittodrie was good – there was a superb save from Sam Cosgrove shortly before Alan Muir’s ridiculous game-changing penalty award.

Some Saints fans will be despondent about their league position and points tally after back-to-back draws against sides below them to see out the old year and see in the new. They would be feeling a whole lot worse had it not been for Clark’s outstanding second minute save with his right boot to deny Hamilton’s Nathan Thomas and his heroics at the death to keep out Keith Watson’s back post header in Dingwall and then a long-range top corner-bound Josh Reid strike.

Whether at the start of a game or the end of one, with his feet or at full-stretch, Clark’s agility and concentration have been shining lights in a gloomy period for Saints. If, let’s say when, their fortunes improve, the successive draws that have his name written through them will get the reflective significance they currently lack when they are lumped in as part of a nine-game Premiership winless run.

Clark was keen to share the praise when assessing his part in seeing out Saturday’s game to its 1-1 conclusion.

‘We were tuned in during the latter stages’

“We know Keith Watson well,” he said. “He attacks the ball and gets a great header on it.

“It was one of those that you just throw an arm at it. I’ve managed to get enough on it to turn the ball over the bar.

“You need to be focused at both ends of the park for 90 minutes.

“When it’s so tight, you need to be spot on with your concentration. Not just me, everybody.

“There were a couple of corners late on that Murray (Davidson) got his head to and then Ali (McCann). We were tuned in during the latter stages.

“It’s vital that we continue to do that.”

The “tuned in” bit for Saints is to be commended. The same goes for the way in which they played in the second half and at the end of the first. But that description could certainly not be applied to a lethargic start that lasted all the way through to Ross Draper’s 21st minute opener. If ever a goal summed up a sloppy passage of football, it was this one.

“I’ve reacted and it falls right to Draper’s path off my foot,” said Clark.

“You could probably say it was bad luck. But we could probably be set up better from the throw-in.

“These are things that we need to look back on. We know the cross comes in too easy and we need to stop that.

“We didn’t start the game well enough. Once we go a goal down we get that kick up the backside we need.

“We start imposing ourselves on the game and dominate most of it.

“We got back into it with a great penalty from Craig (Conway). But when you don’t put chances away, you know you are going to come under pressure in the last five or 10 minutes.”

At 28, Clark knows how it works for a goalkeeper. Solid performances (of which there were many since he returned to the side from injury at the end of September) get overlooked when you concede a couple of preventable goals in a high profile contest.

Zander Clark against Rangers.

“I was personally disappointed with the first goal in the Rangers game,” he said. “I slip on it.

“These things happen.

“I’m not stupid. I know as soon as a goal goes in, everyone automatically looks at the goalkeeper.

“I’m old enough and wise enough now to know that I’ll probably be the one everybody will point the finger at.

“I’ve had it long enough and know that if I can help out, I help out. It’s about me focusing on how I go about my business and train every day.”

Zander Clark punches clear.

On the milestone he has reached with Saints, Clark reflected: “I would’ve bitten your hand off to play one senior game for the club 12 years ago when I signed.

“But to hit this landmark is pleasing and hopefully there are many more to come.”

Hamilton and Ross County – both below Saints in the table – jumped out of the festive fixture list as their big opportunity to make a decisive upwards move.

With one good weekend still teasing the opportunity to move from ninth place to seventh and one bad one carrying the threat of dropping from ninth to 12th, the high-wire act remains precarious.

“We certainly looked at the Hamilton game as two points dropped,” said Clark.

“I don’t think there will be too many games in the archives where St Johnstone have had 28 shots and not won.

“We need to focus on what we do, try to get another run going and get a couple of wins on the board to get ourselves up the table.”

It is evidently the hardest signing to get right but going with what they’ve got would be a far riskier strategy.

For those finding themselves overwhelmed by January pessimism grounded in Saints’ attacking issues that continue to hold them back, keep in mind the fact that all of the teams around Davidson’s men have fundamental shortcomings.

St Mirren have improved but the Perth side would have probably beaten them but for a daft red card.

Kilmarnock have found scoring goals as great a concern as Saints.

Hamilton are doing a Hamilton but were comprehensively outplayed at McDiarmid a few days ago.

Motherwell were thrashed by that very same team.

And Ross County, with their new manager bounce and the advantage of early momentum and the opening goal, still couldn’t win at the weekend. In the words of their manager: “Second half, it was all St Johnstone”.

As was the case when the last transfer window was open, frustratingly and tantalisingly, Saints remain a side waiting to be transformed by a new centre-forward.

It is evidently the hardest signing to get right but going with what they’ve got would be a far riskier strategy.