It was fitting that Ali McCann and Jason Kerr were at McDiarmid Park to watch St Johnstone save their season.
For them, it must have felt like yesterday that the only club either had ever known up to the end of August 2021 was going toe to toe with Galatasaray and LASK.
And seeing the football played in the final 45 minutes against Inverness Caledonian Thistle would have left them wondering how on earth Saints had allowed things to come to such a dramatic, stress-filled conclusion.
However, for those who have endured the full, unimaginable 2021/22 slog, the departure of the two star players from Callum Davidson’s history-making double-winners seems like a lifetime ago.
And when reviewing St Johnstone’s season, it’s the only place to start.
Deadline day implications
There are two, conflicting strands to what happened in the summer.
One is that Saints were in a much stronger position to attract players than all of the Premiership clubs they would consider rivals a year ago – Ross County, Motherwell, St Mirren, Livingston and Dundee.
Hibs, Hearts, Aberdeen and Dundee United could offer better wages, but if you were given the option of Saints, with their European competition and trophy-winning pedigree, or any of the other five, it would be a no-brainer to get in a car to Perth.
The other, equally relevant aspect is that, even though they had built their reputation and financial foundations over a decade and more, the jeopardy of it only taking one bad window to tip the balance and put them back into the bottom-six pack with the threat of a relegation battle has been ever-present.
None were more aware of this knife-edge than previous manager Tommy Wright.
That bad window finally arrived last summer in the form of not having Premiership-ready replacements for Kerr and McCann signed up before they were allowed to leave.
Complacency – understandable to a degree given what had been achieved the season before – crept in and Davidson was let down.
Playing into that was perhaps an over-estimation by chairman, head of recruitment and manager of the capacity of the remaining players to maintain their cup double form.
The end result was too many loan players, most of whom just weren’t good enough, or more pertinently, not good enough for the circumstances Saints were soon to find themselves in.
By the time the January window opened, the squad needed gutted.
It is to Steve Brown’s credit that he reacted exactly as the situation demanded, his actions an implicit acknowledgement that mistakes had been made.
There has never been a January spend like it at St Johnstone.
That improvement followed is undeniable – Saints were effectively back to being a mid-table team with all the good and bad bits that go with that status.
Not all the signings produced bang for their buck, but enough of them did.
— St. Johnstone FC (@StJohnstone) May 23, 2022
And in Tony Gallacher, John Mahon, Dan Cleary and Melker Hallberg, Davidson has four players under contract who will be starters when next season begins.
The transfer turnaround could well get close to double figures again over the next couple of months but the good news is that if Saints get it right, with a new recruitment structure in place and finances still very healthy, their position as the most attractive of the provincial clubs could quickly be reclaimed.
Aberdeen and Hibs have gone backwards, while only Hearts have opened up a significant gap.
Cup double legends crocked
Every team ending up in a basement scrap has a story of woe to tell on this front.
The St Johnstone of 2021/22 is no exception.
The first few months of the season can be a struggle to find rhythm at the best of times.
But by the end of November, with the international breaks at an end, Saints were nicely placed to hit their stride, as has often been their way down the years.
They lost narrowly to Celtic in their third semi-final in the calendar year but played well.
Significantly, their most influential creative force, David Wotherspoon, looked close to his best.
🚑📽| SaintsTV caught up with David Wotherspoon to see how he is getting on after his ACL injury…
First major injury of his career 🤕
What has kept him motivated 💪
Phoning his wife in the Hampden tunnel 📱
Qatar World Cup 🇨🇦
— St. Johnstone FC (@StJohnstone) February 13, 2022
The season-ending injury he sustained on the Hampden turf was arguably as destructive as the departure of McCann and Kerr.
Losing Chris Kane and Craig Bryson for the last few months of the campaign should also be mentioned, while Shaun Rooney was more out than in until spring as well.
John Beaton and friends
We can officially say that decisions do not even themselves out over the course of a season.
Cammy MacPherson not being sent off in the 0-0 draw with Hibs at Easter Road was a moment of good fortune, as was the penalty award for Callum Hendry against Livingston, but other than that it’s hard to think of a match when Saints benefited from a pivotal refereeing decision.
— SPFL (@spfl) December 13, 2021
The penalties in Leith and Paisley against Jamie McCart, Teddy Jenks’ basketball winner for Aberdeen, the double infringement in the build-up to a Hearts equaliser and Hallberg’s red card against Dundee United were the lowlights.
And there were plenty of others.
Saints will do well if they even themselves out by the end of NEXT season, because it got nowhere close in the one just concluded.
The darkest day
Given how poor Saints were at Dens Park at the start of December and how broken they appeared against Ross County at the end of that same month, it took something truly awful to delay the rock bottom moment until the new year.
Although they had played worse in previous games, it was the extra-time meek acceptance of their fate, the absolute absence of a goal threat, the standard of the opposition, the fact they were the Scottish Cup holders, the history-equalling losing streak total that was reached and the end of match gauntlet the players had to navigate that set losing to Kelty Hearts apart from the rest.
🗣 Callum Davidson gives his opinion on abuse of Saints stars as they walked fan gauntlet at Kelty
St Johnstone players were forced to walk through the angry crowd after the 1-0 Cup shock at Kelty Hearts
— PLZ Soccer (@PLZSoccer) January 24, 2022
Only Davidson will know if he seriously contemplated walking away but there was no hiding how deeply this result and experience affected him in the immediate aftermath.
There was still a week left in the transfer window and, again, his chairman chose the right option to keep spending and keep his faith in the man who had won a cup double.
For lesser clubs and lesser managers this would have been the season-defining afternoon.
Davidson, St Johnstone – and, it must be said, their supporters – didn’t allow that to happen.
The key moments
Had Saints been relegated, this list would have featured McCann’s missed penalty on day one in Dingwall, Bryson’s ordering off against Hibs, the failures to rise to the occasion when they could have closed to within two points of Ross County and St Mirren and then the seven minutes of madness in Inverness.
Mercifully, it’s goals, draws and wins that will be viewed as turning points.
On that note, in no particular order, I give you
- Stevie May reaching the 50 mark at Pittodrie
- Zander ‘thou shalt not pass’ Clark at Tannadice
- The two draws with Dundee, one of which halted the 10-game losing streak and the other which halted the Dark Blues’ post-derby comeback momentum and made sure Mark McGhee would keep his clothes on
- Ali Crawford’s late winner at Livingston
- That Hendry volley to beat Motherwell
- Standing up to big pressure to beat Aberdeen
- Standing up to even greater pressure with 45 minutes left of the play-off
Zander Clark v Dundee United pic.twitter.com/n6e0IrsXCB
— St Johnstone F.C. News ✯✯ (@sjfcnews) October 31, 2021
An honourable mention should also go to the SPFL.
Had they not brought the mid-season break forward, the Saints team that was in freefall would almost certainly have lost at Livingston and the gap to safety on their return may have proved to be too big.
St Johnstone’s season had no shortage of ‘nobody would have predicted that’ sub-plots.
Among those was the most successful manager in the club’s history speaking about keeping his job a few months after signing a new contract.
The first half of the campaign was a case of everything that could go wrong going wrong.
As well as the summer transfer window debacle, the injuries and the refereeing howlers, there was the alarming loss of form of cup heroes like McCart, Rooney, Kane, Middleton and O’Halloran.
Eetu Vertainen was following Guy Melamed’s long acclimatisation lead, loan players were getting worse rather than better and free agent signings Efe Ambrose, Jacob Butterfield and Viv Solomon-Otabor were all flattering to deceive to differing extents.
If there was going to be a time to change formation, it was during the January break.
Although Davidson tweaked things in midfield and up front, three at the back remained virtually a constant, with hopes of a revival based on the traditional St Johnstone quality of being hard to break down.
History is written by winners and, in view of the second half of the season form table and, more importantly, in getting the survival job done, it’s now hard to argue against that approach.
That didn’t make it comfortable or pleasurable viewing from the stands. It was seldom that.
And there were even some supporters who turned on Davidson – perceived adaptability their chief gripe.
But finding a way to dig out results and stay up was the only priority. It had to be.
This would be a different conversation if the hard-to-watch football became hard-to-watch relegation football.
The meek defeat to St Mirren at the end of April threatened just that.
Saints didn’t lose a game of consequence from then on, though.
And, in the victory over Aberdeen that sent Dundee down, spells of the trip to Livingston and 120 minutes of play-off football against Inverness Caley Thistle, Saints were playing effectively through midfield, cutting defences open, getting numbers in the box and scoring goals.
A better product corner has already been turned.
There are plenty of ‘what ifs’, of course – the biggest being, what if Callum Hendry hadn’t come to the rescue?
Callum Hendry scored a brilliant stoppage-time winner as St Johnstone came from behind to beat Motherwell 2-1 👏 pic.twitter.com/AyWC01pfc8
— Sky Sports Scotland (@ScotlandSky) March 19, 2022
Not up for debate is that Davidson is the first coach under whom Hendry has become a one-in-two-games starting goalscorer.
Neither Wright nor Derek McInnes have managed that.
Player, manager and Steven MacLean share in that achievement.
The coaching challenge up next for Davidson can be viewed as part daunting, part exciting.
It’s not quite blank canvas territory.
But, with Rooney gone, Hendry’s future uncertain and central midfield needing a significant upgrade, the task is to create a St Johnstone team that can pass its way through the middle of the pitch, stretch defences out wide and carry an element of X factor surprise that they have all too often lacked.
Davidson talking-up a potential relegation escape as bigger than the cup wins didn’t go down well with many Saints supporters.
When he and the players involved in both the double campaign and the one that followed it reflect on their contrasting experiences in a few years – maybe even a few weeks – they’ll know that nothing in their career will get close to 2021.
But for Davidson, in the here and now, it is perfectly understandable he believes the adversity that needed to be overcome was more demanding.
Season number one as a manager was about the glory.
Season number two was about the grind.
He’ll be a more rounded head coach when season number three begins, that’s for sure.