The dream of three cup finals in a row for St Johnstone is over.
But in 4 big talking points from Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Celtic there is cause for pride and optimism.
Nine in a row
Three semi-finals, two finals and four European ties.
The biggest nine matches a St Johnstone manager or players can expect to be faced with.
Nine matches in which Callum Davidson has got his team selections and tactics pretty much spot-on and in which the men he has sent out on to the pitch have delivered for him.
All you can reasonably ask on these high-pressure occasions is that footballers rise to them rather than wilt under the spotlight.
To have the last of those nine encounters on a knife-edge going into the final 20 minutes, with their goalkeeper having barely been troubled, was a collective triumph.
The problem is, in contests like this against higher quality opposition than Hibs, Livingston and St Mirren, the margin for error is so small.
Zander Clark made a half-mistake, referee Nick Walsh made a full one and that was the game.
Approaching the end of a calendar year like no other, there should be no ‘what ifs’ swirling around the Saints dressing room.
They have turned up every time and no more can be demanded.
Shoot on sight
Davidson would have hoped to engineer more set-piece opportunities.
And he would have hoped to engineer some more crossing opportunities in open play.
They were scarce as well.
But one tactic the Perth side did carry out to the letter was shooting when the opportunity presented itself.
Craig Bryson and Chris Kane both took the right option in the first half from 25 yards out, the former with a shot that Joe Hart struggled to keep hold of and the latter an angled drive that scraped the far post.
Ironically, the defining decision in an attacking sense proved to be a moment when a pass was a better bet.
— St. Johnstone FC (@StJohnstone) November 20, 2021
Had Ali Crawford looked right a minute or so before Celtic’s winning goal he’d have seen Michael O’Halloran in space and a two v one opening up.
Trying to lob Hart from 40-odd yards was a one in 10 chance. Picking out his team-mate would have been a one in two.
Much like Glenn Middleton being though on goal in Austria at 1-0 up, this was a pivotal sliding-doors moment.
Spoony back to his best
When you talk about players turning up for the big games in 2021, David Wotherspoon is right at the top of that list.
At the weekend he was central to the change in first half momentum from a one-sided first 10 minutes to a far more balanced subsequent 35.
The Saints’ left was working like the good old days and Wotherspoon, with disguised reverse passes, drops of the shoulder and all-round superb midfield play was threatening to produce another man of the match performance to follow up his Scottish Cup final one.
Maybe Celtic would still have reasserted control had the Canadian international not been taken off with a knee injury a few minutes into the second half.
But the drop-off in the creativity and fluency of Saints after he departed was clear.
It goes without saying that we all hope for a speedy recovery from injury.
If that is the case, there is a good chance Wotherspoon, who has had a stop-start season to date, will become the main man again.
Let’s not go overboard.
It was only 16 minutes and Saints were chasing the game when he came on.
But considering how far down he has been in the attacking pecking order at McDiarmid Park and how little competitive football he has played since arriving from Finland in late summer, this was an impressive display from Eetu Vertainen.
He worked Joe Hart after making space for himself on the edge of the box, he peeled off at the back post and rose well to win a header and he closed down opponents when Saints didn’t have the ball.
Kane wasn’t too happy when Vertainen opted to shoot at the end of a promising stoppage time counter-attack but he looked in as good a position to let fly as anybody else to my eyes.
All in all, this was a far superior display to the next longest one at Pittodrie back in mid-September and one which suggests he is ready for longer spells of game time.
If Saturday proves to be the launchpad for Vertainen’s Perth career, this will prove to be the most worthwhile semi-final defeat St Johnstone have ever had to stomach.