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St Johnstone analysis: Saints reach their half-century with a performance that suited the circumstances

St Johnstone finished fifth last season after drawing with Livingston on the final day.
St Johnstone finished fifth last season after drawing with Livingston on the final day.

You’ll never persuade everybody that St Johnstone’s 2020/21 achievements, as unprecedented and incredible as they are, should stand tallest in Scottish club football when this season is reviewed.

Finishing top of the pile as Rangers have done is the beginning and end of the debate regardless of what has happened below in the eyes of many.

You pays your money and you takes your choice.

What we can say without fear of contradiction however is that Saints will be the only side in the country to complete the full domestic campaign from first game to last.

That’s 38 league fixtures, eight Betfred Cup and five Scottish Cup.

Saturday’s second cup final will be match number 51.

Given everything that has gone before, and the off-field crisis that has consumed Saints over the last fortnight, we’ll forgive Callum Davidson’s men for raising their bat for the half-century of games on Saturday after pinching a scruffy single rather than clearing the members’ pavilion with a Botham-esque six.

This team earned the right to manage a dull 0-0 on the last day of the Premiership in any way they saw fit.

The hard work to get into fifth place had been done. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that much of it was easy on the eye.

Just because it was dull fare at the weekend, though, don’t mistake this performance as a running-on-fumes, falling-over-the-line type one.

In a match that required three players to be brought back into the team to top up their fitness levels ahead of next weekend and others to be taken out to prevent over-exertion, turning this into a game of few chances at either end was the pragmatic and sensible option.

Davidson is at a point – he got there some time ago – where he can rely on his tactics, system and his squad’s familiarity with both to become the key factors when they are facing a side with neither the guile nor belief to negate and trump them.

Saints didn’t play for a draw but it takes a very assured team to get one when it is needed in as stress-free a manner as this.

Denying their opponents width, as the Opta average position map for David Martindale’s men shows, proved to the perfect ploy.

St Johnstone forced Livingston to play centrally. Opta graphic.

There was really only one proper chance for Livingston in the whole game and one proper save from stand-in keeper Bobby Zlamal – when he made a block with his legs from a Jaze Kabia shot in the second half. And even then it was an opportunity presented to the visitors when James Brown gave Shaun Rooney the sort of pass no defender wants in his own penalty box.

St Johnstone made it a relatively incident-free game as this Opta graphic shows.

Livingston had two shots, two open-play crosses and one corner in a game they had over 55% of the possession in and needed to win to have a chance of playing European football next season.

If that isn’t the definition of control by Saints, I don’t know what is.

“It definitely wasn’t the prettiest of games but we knew what we had to do,” said Jason Kerr. “Get a point to qualify for Europe. That’s what we’ve done.

“It was never going to be a great match. All that mattered was the result and I’m just buzzing that we got it.

“It’s a magnificent achievement for this team, especially when you consider we were bottom of the league after about 10 games.

Jason Kerr deals with Livingston’s Jaze Kabia.

“To end up in fifth and be in Europe shows how good we are as a group of players.

“Now that we’ve got this job done it does take a bit of pressure off us next Saturday. All our focus is on the final now.

“We’ve already put on trophy in the cabinet. We know how to do it and we’re hungry for another one.”

Stevie May, Murray Davidson and Liam Craig all returned after missing the last two matches, with others hopefully doing the same for the season finale at Hampden Park.

Kerr endured a coronavirus lay-off in the winter and had a suspension to serve just before it, keeping him out for a month in total.

Self-isolation sounds like a hammer blow for an individual, and a team if there are a few who are going through it at the same time, but the Perth skipper’s own experience tells him the Saints team won’t be too adversely affected against Hibs.

“I felt fine in my first game back,” he said.

“Obviously you can’t do as much fitness work as you would want when you’re in the house but we’re professional footballers. Ten days isn’t too bad. As long as you get a couple of training sessions before a game, you’re good to go.

“I think that was our 50th game so we’ve played a lot of football. It’s not as if we need to build our fitness up.”

Kerr added: “The last couple of weeks have been tough.

“We haven’t had as many training sessions as we would have wanted since the semi-final but we’ve got through it so far.

“There’s no good time to catch the virus obviously but from our point of view the timing wasn’t great.

“It’s been a bit anxious but we knew that we had the sort of depth in our squad that would mean we could keep getting results, which we’ve proven again.

“Now we’ll get players back for Saturday.”

It should come as no surprise that Saints fancy their chances of a cup double.

But it isn’t the fact they’ll be coming up against a side they’ve beaten three times on the bounce that is the primary reason for their confidence.

“We won’t be putting too much on record against Hibs,” said Kerr. “We’ve done well against them but we know they’ve got a good squad.

“We’ll focus on ourselves and if we play to our potential we can beat anyone.

“We’ve done well in big games at Hampden so far and that will definitely help us. We know we can put good performances in there.”

Hopes of friends and fans joining the players at the national stadium for their fourth and final trip there were raised then dashed last week.

“We would have loved that to happen,” said Kerr. “But the decision has been made and you’ve got to respect it.

“I’m gutted but I’m sure they won’t mind if it’s the same as the Betfred Cup and they get to watch us winning on the TV.”

St Johnstone qualify for Europe after 0-0 draw with Livingston

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