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Six-month story of St Johnstone glory comes to an end with Europa Conference League defeat to LASK

St Johnstone's Murray Davidson.
St Johnstone's Murray Davidson.

You should know by now not to presume it’s the end of an era.

There could well be more against-the-odds St Johnstone achievements still to come.

But you can turn the page on a six-month story of footballing heroics that will never be surpassed.

Drawing with Galatasaray and LASK away from home has added to this history-making team’s legend.

Beating them on their own pitch proved to be a bridge too far, though.

Double cup winners is how it will have to be book-ended.

The dream of group stage Europa Conference League qualification and the £3 million that goes with it died in a 12-minute second half spell during which time Saints conceded twice and had two men, David Wotherspoon and Shaun Rooney, sent off.

Not scoring when they were one up in Austria proved to be a sliding-doors stage of the play-off and when the second leg was drawing to its conclusion, the strength of LASK’s bench decided the outcome.

Their manager Dominik Thalhammer had stressed the importance of a fast start from his players and they delivered it.

On three minutes Hyon-Seok Hong evaded a couple of weak challenges at the edge of the box and Saints needed Zander Clark to make a save at his near post from the subsequent shot on the angle.

As against Galatasaray at McDiarmid, James Brown started the match, this time with Rooney filling in for the injured Liam Gordon in the centre of defence.

He showed the sort of attacking intent required for the wing-back role when cutting inside and winning his team a corner.

Rooney got his head to the set-piece but didn’t make a clean connection.

Keito Nakamura impressed in Klagenfurt when coming off the bench and he was making his mark as a starter seven days later.

His movement inside the box was too clever for the Perth defenders and if Thomas Goiginger had been on the same wavelength the latter would have had a simple finish at the back post.

A clumsy first touch let Saints off the hook, however.

The hosts’ goal against Galatasaray was born of a goalkeeping error and history nearly repeated itself midway through the first half.

Alexander Schlager was caught in no man’s land from a Glenn Middleton inswinger and had Jason Kerr known the ball was going to reach him he would surely have scored rather than helping it past the post.

LASK were starting to get a few opportunities to pick holes in the Saints defence as the half drew to a close.

That they were lacking the class of Galatasaray when the ball was turned over in dangerous positions was clear but Nakamura was a constant menace and Rooney had to produce a perfectly-timed sliding tackle on the 18-yard line to stop him getting a shot away.

Centre-forward Mamoudou Karamoko had shown next to nothing but in stoppage time he came to life, beat his man and sent a low cross over that was begging for a near post run but didn’t get it.

This already had the feel of a first-goal-the-winner game and LASK nearly scored it three minutes after the break.

Peter Michorl controlled the ball well just inside the box. His left foot shot was on target but Clark was able to make the sort of diving save that has got him into the Scotland squad.

There was an even better stop seven minutes later when he got a hand to a well-struck Hong shot that came through a crowded penalty area.

This was undoubtedly the toughest spell of the game so far for Saints, with spaces opening up through the middle.

It was Thalhammer who looked to his bench first, however, sending on two players who started the first leg – Husein Balic and Jan Boller.

Balic almost made a spectacular impact with a back post volley that dipped just over the bar.

Saints were still carrying a threat of their own and Ali McCann and Middleton both had shots blocked in quick succession before the on-loan Rangers man forced the first good save of the game out of Schlager.

A vital save it was too as LASK broke the deadlock not long after.

Clark was helpless when Balic found space in the box to smash a shot high past him from around 14 yards out.

It was always going to be a case of when rather than if Wotherspoon would be introduced and that happened almost straight after the LASK opener.

Less predictable was that he would be sent off a minute later.

Florian Flecker went down near the corner flag and the German referee decided it was a challenge with the elbow worthy of a straight red.

One red became two on 84 minutes when Balic was through on goal in the box and was pulled down by Rooney.

Substitute Marko Raguz dispatched the penalty and it was game and European campaign over.

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