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ANALYSIS: Top six is St Johnstone’s established place in Scottish football

St Johnstone top six celebrations.
St Johnstone top six celebrations.

Stevie May described it as the latest in a very, very long line of St Johnstone “over-achievements”.

And he’s right, of course.

There hasn’t been a season since the Perth club returned to the top division of Scottish football when their league position has fallen beneath the level their budget would peg them at.

In a statistic-driven age, nobody has come up with a more accurate definition of exceeding reasonable expectations.

But there’s another side to the Saints story that the over-achievement label doesn’t do justice to.

And it’s that this – top six Premiership finishes, all eight of them in 10 years, and cup glory – has become the Perth club’s normal.

It isn’t a Derek McInnes thing. It isn’t a Steve Lomas thing. It isn’t a Geoff or a Steve Brown thing. It isn’t even a Tommy Wright or now a Callum Davidson thing. It’s a St Johnstone thing.

The fleeting form-dips and flirtations with the bottom of the table are the exception. The rest is the rule.

Frame it as their continued over-achievement if you want but, when it’s been happening for a decade and counting, I choose to frame it as their established place in Scottish football.

And the best bit for Saints fans (as if they have any need to be cheered up these days) is that there is nothing to suggest the sustained excellence will collapse, or even peter out, anytime soon.

Not for the remainder of 2020/21 when fifth is in their sights, a league placing that would likely bring with it European qualification, and there’s another cup run to be constructed. And not in the seasons to follow with a youthful squad that has plenty of scope for development and a young head coach who hasn’t yet reached 12 months as a number one.

“It’s a brilliant achievement,” said May, who combined with Glenn Middleton for the goal that secured the 1-0 weekend win against Ross County.

Glenn Middleton scores.

“This has been a club that has always over-achieved and this is one of the biggest over-achieving seasons yet. To go from where we were (bottom at one point) to where we are now is amazing.

“You couldn’t have hoped for better.

“This season we’ve probably played football that’s been better than in the past. The squad has changed and so has the way we’ve played.

“It’s a young, talented squad that has the potential to get even better. It’s a very good time to be at St Johnstone.

“To transition the group of players that did so well for the club for many years into this one and keep the form going and keep over-achieving is a credit to everyone here.”

Of all Saints’ top six quests, none have reached a successful conclusion as dramatically as this one.

With less than five minutes to be played at McDiarmid Park and in the Hamilton v St Mirren match, a change in the scoreline was needed on both fronts.

Middleton’s superb swivel and finish was one half of the required equation and the Buddies conceding an equaliser to Accies the other.

Both teams had hit the 40-point mark, with only two goals separating them – in favour of Davidson’s men.

This was the first time Saints had put back-to-back league wins together all season and the first time they had climbed above the split line. It was the sort of sprint finish the great middle-distance runners would have been proud of.

St Johnstone dominated possession but lost 1-0 to Ross County in September. Graphic – Opta.
The possession dominance was similar but this time it was 1-0 to Saints. Graphic – Opta.

The game against County perfectly captured the development of this team. Earlier in the campaign they played in so many, too many, of these type of contests (the September defeat to County being one of them) where they toiled to convert dominance of possession into points.

Not anymore.

Five of Saints’ last six Premiership wins have been by just one goal. And we now know that they needed all of those victories – and the draw at Hamilton – to edge out St Mirren.

The Perth bench has been much stronger in the last few months than it was in the first few and this was the match in which substitutes made the most telling impact.

One of them, May put through another, Middleton for a glorious opportunity the on-loan Rangers man squandered on 79 minutes before they combined again with just four minutes left on the clock, May cutting the ball back and Middleton rolling his marker and shooting low past Ross Laidlaw.

After we scored I could see wee things happening on our bench that made me think something had happened at Hamilton.

“I knew that St Mirren were winning when I went on,” said May. “A few of the boys had been thinking at half-time that Hamilton were 1-0 up and I had to tell them it was the other way around.

“Glenn had done so well to get through for his first chance and he kind of snatched at the shot a bit.

“But he didn’t let it bother him and it was a brilliant goal a few minutes later when he has turned the defender. It was brilliant for him and brilliant for all of us.

“After we scored I could see wee things on our bench that made me think maybe something had happened at Hamilton.

“But we didn’t know for sure out on the pitch. Thankfully Hamilton had scored and it worked out for us in the end.

“There were a couple of minute to wait before we got the shout that it was over and we’d made the top six.

“It’s a great achievement.

“The odds were stacked against us – especially at half-time when we were drawing and St Mirren were winning.

“But I think we deserve it. The stars have aligned for us a bit and here we are.”

That they have. But there is also a strong argument that, although it took a helping hand by Accies’ Kyle Munro in the end, the change of fortune for St Johnstone has only served to produce a fair outcome.

Stevie May and the Saints players are congratulated by John Hughes.

“You could possibly say that we were actually playing our best football earlier in the season when we weren’t picking up results,” said May.

“Even at Christmas time we were still near the bottom of the table. Considering where we were, you couldn’t have predicted we’d win a cup and get into the top six.

“It’s maybe got scrappier in some games but we’ve been picking up results which is the main thing.

“The manager has stuck by the boys and he’s stuck with the way we want to play as well. We’ve mixed it up at times when we’ve needed to and there have been some big performances in big games.

“That’s the sign of a really good team. To get top six is brilliant.”

The importance Jim Goodwin put on finishing sixth and the fact he made no attempt to hide the desolation at not doing so (replicated in the Paisley fanbase) demolishes the theory that the prize is a manufactured and meaningless one.

What is manufactured and meaningless is the task that now awaits the Buddies and Dundee United – the battle to be the best of the rest. For St Johnstone, they now have Livingston in their sights and the place in Europe that would be theirs if they reel them in and a team in the top four wins the Scottish Cup.

“The only way we can go is up now,” said May. “Everything is a bonus from here on.

“We’ll not look any further ahead than the next game but we’ll give it a real go and see where we end up.

“We’re obviously playing the bigger teams but we’re all buzzing about the challenge.”