St Johnstone opened their pre-season account with a battling draw against Preston North End.
The Perth side started the stronger against their English Championship opponents – but fell behind to a stunning Ben Whiteman strike 35 minutes in.
Callum Davidson’s men were more than a match for North End, however, and drew level through a curling David Wotherspoon strike early in the second half.
Had Wotherspoon held his nerve from the penalty spot minutes later instead of sending his effort well over the bar, Saints could have kicked off their Europa League warm-up run with a win.
However, after both sides made multiple changes in the second half, the game was played to an entertaining, competitive draw.
The lucky 1000 Saints fans who claimed tickets via season ticket-holder ballot made themselves heard even before kick-off at McDiarmid Park.
When the Perth side took to the field for their pre-match warm-up, those already in the ground rose to acclaim their heroes for the first time in-person for 16 months.
It felt like a cathartic moment for fans who had been forced to watch the most historic season in their club’s history via online streams and TV broadcasts.
It was a “thank you” from a grateful support – or at least a section of it – and the players, who responded with a round of applause of their own, clearly enjoyed it.
The home side started positively – and with no little aggression.
David Wotherspoon and Ali McCann typified the home side’s up-and-at-’em approach early, steaming into tackles against a Preston midfield that looked stunned by what was greeting them in Perth.
Jamie McCart and Callum Booth combined well down the left flank as Saints took the game to their English Championship opponents, while double cup final goal hero Shaun Rooney’s every touch was greeted by the sound his name ringing round the ground.
Saints’ first chance came in the 17th minute when first McCann, then Stevie May, then Rooney saw efforts blocked by the desperate but fully committed North End defence.
Three minutes later the home side might have taken the lead when McCann, sent clear by a neat, round-the-corner Wotherspoon touch, found Rooney at the back post, only for the sliding Perth star’s effort to be blocked.
Soon after, Preston started to spray the ball around with more fluidity.
And the visitors proved they were ready to mix it physically if required too.
A Josh Harrop shot on 28 minutes was spilled by Zander Clark, who was relieved to see Jamie McCart in position to hoof the ball clear.
But seven minutes later Preston took the lead in circumstances the referee may have wished to re-examine had the match been a competitive one.
Their opener followed a clear-as-day foul on Stevie May by Patrick Bauer, which the referee opted to ignore, despite seeming to have a clear line of sight.
Seconds later, Preston moved the ball to Ben Whiteman, who unleashed an absolutely unstoppable, dipping, 20-yarder past Clark via the underside of the bar.
Saints had their goalkeeper to thank for keeping the deficit to one goal just before half-time, however, when he dived to his right to save another vicious Whiteman effort, this time from a free-kick just on the edge of the “D”.
North End, managed by Alex Neil’s former number two Frankie McAvoy, made two changes at the interval – and Saints draw level just five minutes after the restart.
— St. Johnstone FC (@StJohnstone) July 13, 2021
Michael O’Halloran put in the hard work to create the chance, charging down a clearance by Preston keeper Matt Hudson and allowing hometown hero Wotherspoon to curl a perfectly placed effort past a defender and into the empty net.
Just four minutes later, Saints should have gone ahead from the penalty spot after O’Halloran was wrestled to the ground by Bauer, but Wotherspoon spooned his kick into orbit.
It was near enough all-change on the hour, with Saints making five substitutions and Preston seven.
Another two Saints switches followed with 20 minutes to go – and the game opened up in the aftermath.
With new loan signings Reece Devine (from Manchester United) and Hayden Muller (from Millwall) on the park along with youngsters Cammy Ballantyne and Jordan Northcott, the Perth side looked highly competitive.
And despite the lack of further goals, the home crowd hailed their heroes at full-time.
St Johnstone starting XI: Clark, Rooney, Kerr, Gordon, McCart, Booth, Wotherspoon, Davidson, McCann, O’Halloran, May.
Preston North End starting XI: Hudson, Van Den Berg, Earl, Bauer, Harrop, Olosunde, Rafferty, Whiteman, Riis, Maguire, Leigh.