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Ali McCann: The 5 steps to St Johnstone greatness of the man who outshone Galatasaray stars

Ali McCann. Image: SNS.
Ali McCann. Image: SNS.

The St Johnstone players were heroic to a man in securing one of the Perth club’s greatest results in European football, a 1-1 draw with the iconic Turkish giants Galatasaray.

It would take a churlish observer to mark any of them down as less than an eight out of 10 for setting up the McDiarmid Park second leg perfectly.

But even in that company, one player’s performance stood out.

Ali McCann has gone well beyond the ‘hidden secret’ stage of his career but it isn’t a if Saints chairman Steve Brown has had suitors knocking down his door to sign Perth’s star man.

Whether that changes in the last few weeks before the transfer window shuts on the back of his Istanbul display remains to be seen.

But that McCann has blossomed into one of the finest midfielders in Scotland over the last few seasons is incontestable.

Eric Nicolson picks out five games that have progressively elevated him to St Johnstone greatness.


1 The first 90 minutes

A full debut away to Albion Rovers in the Scottish Cup in January, 2018 would have been a special moment for the 18-year-old McCann for obvious reasons.

A match against Celtic the following year has also been referenced a lot because it was his performance as a second half substitute on a first-day-of-the-season 7-0 Parkhead hammering that convinced Tommy Wright here was a player of strong character as well as big talent.

This was at a time when he was vying with Kyle McClean to establish first team credentials.

Ali McCann battles with Christian Doidge.

The match that sticks out in my mind, though, as the one when it first became apparent that McCann had the capacity to dictate a game at Premiership level was at Hibs a couple of weeks late – his first 90 minutes.

It was hit and miss in the first half but by the end of the Easter Road contest – a 2-2 draw – McCann was conspicuously more confident and the best midfielder on the pitch.


2 The head-to-head

Lewis Ferguson was then – some would claim, still is – the benchmark for young, Scottish-born box-to-box central midfielders.

In direct opposition on a cold February, 2020 night at Pittodrie, McCann looked a class above.

The short and long pass repertoire was working to great effect and Ferguson was cumbersome by comparison.

The dynamism and composure displayed in the winning goal confirmed that McCann was the full package, with a broader variety to his game than the man who had been getting all the hype.


3 The Northern Ireland debut

It was a disgrace that Scotland ignored McCann’s talents as he progressed through the age-group ranks with Saints and a disgrace that they made no attempt to persuade him to opt for the country he was born and brought up in when he made the under-21 breakthrough with Northern Ireland.

There was no doubt a misplaced arrogance that better players could be found in the big footballing cities.

Ali McCann in action for Northern Ireland.

It was too late by November of last year when McCann was awarded his first full cap for Ireland against Austria in the Nations League.

To the surprise of nobody who has paid close attention to his development, it was another step-up taken in his stride.

The ingrained knack of knowing when to keep it simple served McCann particularly well in Vienna.

Our loss remains their gain.


4 The passing of the torch

Of all Saints’ big cup matches last season, McCann’s most impressive one individually was probably the Scottish Cup quarter-final at Ibrox.

Ali McCann and Steven Davis battle for the ball.

Robbing Steven Davis, the most-capped UK footballer in history, of possession in the early minutes felt like a symbolic passing of the torch moment in a Northern Ireland context.

It also put down a marker for Saints in the here and now.

A last-ditch tackle on Ryan Kent at the other end of the game was even more important and McCann was nerveless dispatching the tie-winning penalty.

Given the opposition, this was a further rung up the ladder.


5 The best yet

Given the competition, given the opposition, given the disparity in the two teams’ possession and given the fact he had absorbed the blow of missing a probable match-winning penalty a few days before, Thursday night in Istanbul was a stunning personal triumph.

McCann broke up play far more regularly than should have been the case in that company, expertly filled spaces when nicking the ball wasn’t a possibility, and barely wasted a pass when the opportunity presented itself to turn defence into attack.

It takes a special kind of game-intelligence to thrive in the middle of the pitch against Galatasaray and McCann’s tackle, one-two and driving run to set up David Wotherspoon’s first half chance encapsulated it.

We’ve been here before with talk of ‘surely a big club is going to make St Johnstone an offer they can’t refuse’ but when a 21-year-old midfielder plays this well on such a lofty stage and could be bought for the lower end of a seven-figure sum, what on earth are they waiting for?

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